South Korean dog meat farmers push back against growing moves to outlaw their industry

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea — The dogs bark and stare as Kim Jong-kil approaches the rusty cages housing the large, short-haired animals he sells for their meat. Kim opens a door and pets one dog’s neck and chest.

Kim says he’s proud of the dog meat farm that has supported his family for 27 years, but is upset over growing attempts by politicians and activists to outlaw the business, which he is turning over to his children.

“It’s more than just feeling bad. I absolutely oppose these moves, and we’ll mobilize all our means to resist it,” Kim, 57, said in an interview at his farm in Pyeongtaek city, just south of Seoul.

Dog meat consumption is a centuries-old practice on the Korean Peninsula and has long been viewed as a source of stamina on hot summer days. It’s neither explicitly banned nor legalized in South Korea, but more and more people want it prohibited. There’s increasing public awareness of animal rights and worries about South Korea’s international image.

The anti-dog meat campaign recently received a big boost when the country’s first lady expressed her support for a ban and two lawmakers submitted bills to eliminate the dog meat trade.

“Foreigners think South Korea is a cultural powerhouse. But the more K-culture increases its international standing, the bigger shock foreigners experience over our dog meat consumption,” said Han Jeoungae, an opposition lawmaker who submitted legislation to outlaw the dog meat industry last month.

Prospects for passage of an anti-dog meat law are unclear because of protests by farmers, restaurant owners and others involved in the dog meat industry. Surveys suggest that one in three South Koreans opposes such a ban, though most people don’t eat dog meat anymore.

Dogs are also eaten in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, North Korea and some African countries, including Ghana, Cameroon, Congo and Nigeria.

Earlier this month, Indonesian authorities announced the end of dog and cat slaughter at an animal market on the island of Sulawesi following a yearslong campaign by local activists and world celebrities. The Tomohon Extreme Market will become the first such market in Indonesia to go dog and cat meat-free, according to the anti-animal cruelty group Humane Society International.

South Korea’s dog meat industry receives more international attention because of its reputation as a wealthy, ultra-modern democracy. It is also the only nation with industrial-scale farms. Most farms in South Korea have more than 500 dogs, according to a dog farmers’ association.

During a recent visit, Kim’s farm, one of the country’s largest with 7,000 dogs, appeared relatively clean but there was a strong stench in some areas. All dogs are kept in elevated cages and are fed with food waste and ground chicken. They are rarely released for exercise and typically are sold for meat one year after they are born.

Kim said two of his children, age 29 and 31, are running the farm with him, and that business has been going pretty well. He said the dogs bred for their meat are different from pets, an idea opposed by activists.

It’s difficult now to find dog meat restaurants in Seoul’s bustling downtown, though many still exit in the countryside.

“I only earn one-third of the money I used to make. Young people don’t come here. Only ailing old people come for lunch,” said Yoon Chu-wol, 77, the owner of a dog meat restaurant in Seoul’s Kyungdong traditional market. “I tell my elderly customers to come and eat my food more frequently before it’s banned.”

Farmers also face growing scrutiny from officials and increasingly negative public opinion. They complain that officials visit them repeatedly in response to complaints filed by activists and citizens over alleged animal abuse and other wrongdoing. Kim said more than 90 such petitions were filed against his farm during a recent four-month span.

Son Won Hak, general secretary of the dog farmers’ association, said many farms have collapsed in recent years because of falling dog meat prices and weaker demand. He thinks that’s a result of activist campaigns and unfair media reports focusing on farms with inferior conditions. Some observers, however, say consumption of dog meat was already declining, with younger people staying away from it.

“Quite honestly, I’d like to quit my job (as a farmer) tomorrow. We can’t confidently tell our children that we’re raising dogs,” Son said. “When my friends called me, they said ‘Hey, are you still running a dog meat farm? Isn’t it illegal?’”

The number of farms across South Korea has dropped by half from a few years ago to about 3,000 to 4,000, and about 700,000 to 1 million dogs are slaughtered each year, a decline from several million 10 to 20 years ago, according to the dog farmers’ association. Some activists argue that the farmers’ estimates are an exaggeration meant to show their industry is too big to destroy.

In late 2021, South Korea launched a government-civilian task force to consider outlawing dog meat at the suggestion of then-President Moon Jae-in, a pet lover. The committee, whose members include farmers and animal rights activists, has met more than 20 times but hasn’t reached any agreement, apparently because of disputes over compensation issues.

Agriculture officials refused to disclose the discussions in the closed-door meetings. They said the government wants to end dog meat consumption based on a public consensus.

In April, first lady Kim Keon Hee, the wife of current President Yoon Suk Yeol, said in a meeting with activists that she hopes for an end to dog meat consumption. Famers responded with rallies and formal complaints against Kim for allegedly hurting their livelihoods.

Han, the lawmaker, said she “highly positively appraises” influential figures speaking out against dog meat consumption.

Han said her bill offers support programs for farmers who agree to close their farms. They would be entitled to money to dismantle their facilities, vocational training, employment assistance and other benefits, she said.

Ju Yeongbong, an official of the farmers’ association, said farmers want to continue for about 20 more years until older people, their main customers, die, allowing the industry to naturally disappear. Observers say most farmers are also in their 60s to 70s.

Borami Seo, a director of the South Korea office of the Humane Society International, said she opposes the continued killing of millions of dogs for such a prolonged period. “Letting this silent cruelty to (dogs) be committed in South Korea doesn’t make sense,” Seo said.

“(Dog meat consumption) is too anachronistic, has elements of cruelty to animals and hinders our national growth,” said Cheon JinKyung, head of Korea Animal Rights Advocates in Seoul.