December 13, 2001
Korea Learns One Man's Meat Is Another's Passion
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Park Gye Dong, left, Lee Kyung Hee and Kim Dong Soo are regulars at Sangdari in Seoul where dishes made with the meat of specially raised dogs are on the menu. "Dog eating is part of our culture," Mr. Kim said
SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 11 — Some say that dogs are man's best friend, but Lee Mi Kyoung, a restaurateur in one of this city's upper- middle-class neighborhoods, thinks dogs are something more.
At Sangdari, Ms. Lee's restaurant, they are at the center of the four main dishes on the menu.
For the life of her, Ms. Lee can not understand all the fuss that has been raised about dog eating — mostly outside of Korea — as this country prepares to be the co-host of the World Cup soccer competition, with Japan, in May.
"Maybe the reason so many objections are being raised is that people think we are eating pets," said Ms. Lee, 37, whose specialty is far from novel in this glittering and frenetic capital. "The fact is that we serve dogs which were raised for eating. Don't people understand that the culture of pets is a very recent arrival in Korea?"
To describe the collision of viewpoints about the eating of dog meat as a misunderstanding probably ranks as the understatement of the season in a country bent on modernizing. With everyone from animal rights activists to the leaders of FIFA, soccer's governing body, condemning the eating of dog meat, even the Korean news media have begun to speak of a "clash of civilizations."
But calls by Joseph Blatter, the FIFA president to "immediately and decisively terminate" the practice, and threats by Brigitte Bardot to organize boycotts of Korea, are being answered with a defiant "Phooey!" by Koreans.
"Sometimes we become a little obsessed with the feelings of Westerners who try to lecture us on values and regard others as barbarians," said Kim Dong Soo, 52, who sat on the restaurant's shiny pine floors and ate, together with two friends, from a pot steaming with dog meat stew. "But who are they to lecture us?" he said. "We have 5,000 years of history, and dog eating is part of our culture."
Among the rebuttals to foreign criticism, arguments reaching far back into history — an obsession in this country where most families can trace their ancestors back hundreds of years — seem to be the most common. "In stock-raising Europe, dogs could become men's best friends as hunting assistants," said an editorial in The Korea Herald this week. "In agrarian Asia, oxen were the No. 1 property in most families as farming aides. Pigs came second as big suppliers of fat and protein. But dogs had little use except guarding houses, which was mostly unnecessary in ancient Korean villages of the same clans."
Under the grim yet inadvertently humorous title "Not all dogs are meant to be eaten," an editorial writer in The JoongAng Ilbo, a leading Seoul newspaper, compared cultural attitudes toward dogs: "In the Western cultural code, dogs come close to being thought of as human beings. In Confucian culture, where hierarchy is valued, however close human beings and dogs may be, at no point are they considered even remotely equal. This is why fully grown dogs can play around in living rooms in the West, whereas they never come inside the house in Confucian countries like Korea."
Indeed, to hear the owner of Sangdari explain it, dogs that Westerners think of as pets and those that Koreans think of as food are virtually two different species. "Ours are kind of big, yellowish dogs," Ms. Lee said.
"In Korean we call them junk dogs, and we get them from special ranches," she said. "The problem is that it is illegal to kill them. Luckily the government turns a blind eye."
Indeed, the government banned dog meat during the 1988 Seoul Olympics but enforcement has been lax since then.
Korea is far from the only country where people eat dogs.
They are a delicacy in China, as well, and are eaten in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. Then again, some Asian countries, notably Japan, which ruled Korea for 35 years early in the last century, view the practice as repugnant. One of Tokyo's most famous landmarks is the statue of a legendary loyal dog, Hachiko, which sits at Shibuya Crossing.
But in a situation reminiscent of Korea's, the Japanese have been embroiled for years in a debate over the eating of whale meat, which is also denounced as inhumane by many in the West.
"Anyone can tell you that eating dog meat is the healthiest thing you can do," said Park Gye Dong, 54, who was dining with Mr. Kim. "The Chinese wrote about its healing powers 3,000 years ago in their medical texts, and even now doctors tell patients who are recuperating from operations to eat dog meat in order to recover quickly. I would eat it much more often myself if I could only afford it, but it's a little expensive."
The other source of popularity for dog meat in Korea and throughout much of this region is its reputed ability to provide relief from extreme heat. Restaurants like Sangdari are packed in the summer time, when Seoul's stifling climate bears a passing resemblance to Atlanta's, only smoggier. The World Cup ends June 30, by the way, just as Korea's weather begins to really heat up.
At the mention of hot weather, Mr. Kim, the most volatile of the three friends, turned away from a round of toasts of soju, a vodkalike Korean spirit made mainly from sweet potatoes and rice and other grains, to engage a foreign visitor. "The French eat horses, but we give them a decent burial," he said. "Others eat cats, but we treat cats well. Koreans are not lecturing other cultures on how to live, so please tell them to leave us alone."