South Korea Bans Dog Meat but “Sweet Meat Stew” Still Cherished in North Korea

Image of caged dogs

SEOUL – On January 9, 2024, South Korean legislators banned the breeding and slaughter of dogs for human consumption due to various factors like shifting cultural norms and international criticism of the consumption of dog meat. 

Yet for many North Koreans and older generations of South Koreans, eating boshintang (dog meat stew) during the summer is an important culinary tradition. 

For generations, Koreans have eaten nutritious, reinvigorating stews like boshintang during the hot summer months to restore energy, combat fatigue, and alleviate other symptoms caused by the summer heat. 

Although it may seem counterintuitive, proponents have touted the health benefits of eating hot stew on hot summer days due to the concept of iyolchiyol (이열치열), which could be roughly translated as “beat the heat with heat” or “fight fire with fire.”

Moreover, as Koreans have long considered dog meat to be a stamina-booster as well as a good source of protein, the history of eating dog meat in Korea can likely be traced back thousands of years. 

Korea’s Long History of Dog Meat Consumption

An image of a slaughtered dog on an ancient wall painting in Korea suggests that Korea’s history of dog meat consumption may date back to the Goguryeo Dynasty (37 BC – 668 AD). 

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), there were several historical documents about the positive effects of dog meat.

In the “Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine,” a medical book from the Joseon Dynasty that is now registered with UNESCO, the writer asks, “Isn’t it true that dog meat is the best for patients with spear wounds?”

In addition, Dongguksesigi (“A Record of the Seasonal Customs of the Eastern Kingdom”) is an almanac of Korea’s monthly seasonal customs that was written by Hong Seok-mo, a scholar during the reigns of King Jeongjo (1725-1800) and King Sunjo (1800-1834). 

He wrote, “Dogs boiled and stewed with green onions are called ‘gujang.’ Add bamboo sprouts and chili powder to it, mix it with rice, and eat it as a seasonal dish. If you sweat after eating it, you can overcome the heat and replenish your energy.”

According to another historical text called The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, Kim An Ro (1481-1537), who was a servant in the 31st year of King Jungjong, loved dog meat so much that people bribed him with dog meat to receive a position in the government.

At that time, people also made “dog meat taffy” in the winter by mixing rice, dog meat, garlic, pine nuts, and taffy, and that tradition is still being practiced in North Korea.

Dog Meat Consumption in North Korea

In North Korea, it’s difficult for many people to store food in a refrigerator like they do in South Korea due to chronic electricity shortages, so they make dog meat taffy to preserve the meat and eat it when they please.

When I was living in North Korea, my mom used to store it in the ground or in a small jar outside, and at times I would take some out, boil it, and eat it.

North Korean families that can afford it make two to three dogs into taffy or dangogi (a dog meat stew that’s roughly translated as “sweet meat stew”) for married men every year because they believe it boosts a man’s stamina. 

When I was young, my father used to eat dog meat taffy that he had received as a bribe, and in modern times, North Korea still has a culture of paying bribes with dog meat. 

South Korea’s Shift Away from Dog Meat

After South Korea was selected to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, South Korea’s consumption of dog meat led to criticism from dog lovers and animal rights activists abroad (who considered it uncivilized) and sparked a domestic debate about the practice.

In response, South Korea’s government temporarily banned the sale of dog meat in Seoul’s traditional markets and asked dog meat retailers to remove dog carcasses from their stalls to avoid offending foreigners.

This caused a backlash from some South Koreans who considered the international criticism and the government’s subsequent acquiescence as a form of “cultural imperialism” against one of Korea’s traditions. 

Dog meat was allowed to be sold again openly in the capital after the Olympics ended, but some South Koreans, especially younger generations, began to avoid dog meat due to the perceived stigma, and debates about cultural relativism ensued.

Eventually, some South Korean politicians became vocal opponents of the dog meat industry, including the former Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, and South Korea’s current President, Yoon Suk Yeol, an animal lover who owns six dogs and eight cats with first lady Kim Keon Hee.

Ultimately, on January 9, 2024, South Korea’s National Assembly passed legislation that will prohibit the breeding, slaughter, distribution, and sale of dogs for consumption after a three-year grace period.  

A Debatable Ban on Dog Meat Consumption in South Korea

With the passage of South Korea’s recent bill abolishing the dog meat industry, it seems that South Korea’s dog meat and boshintang culture will slowly fade away.

On the one hand, I understand why some South Koreans are against dog meat consumption, since according to data from 2020, South Koreans raised about 6 million dogs as pets.  

On the other hand, however, I disagree that dog meat consumption is an “uncivilized culture” since dogs are still eaten by people throughout the world, and dog meat was also consumed by people in various cultures throughout history, including ancient Rome.

Therefore, cultures form and disappear depending on the era and context within which cultural traditions are developed, so Koreans should not be stigmatized for eating dog meat. If the South and the North are eventually reunified, I hope that a debate over Korea’s “sweet meat” boshintang culture does not arise. 

While things are changing fast here in the South, the North seems to stubbornly insist on adhering to its culinary traditions. In that regard, this development just seems to add one more element to the ever-growing differences on both sides of the Korean Peninsula today.

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