One animal rights activist holds a dead puppy outside South Korea’s Parliament in the capital Seoul Friday, calling for an end to the dog meat industry.
A few meters away, a group of dog farmers eat meat from dogs they have reared, claiming it is their tradition and livelihood.
Dozens of policemen separate these two sharply contrasting faces of South Korea – evocative images of a decades-old practice of farming dogs for human consumption.
Injecting a bit of star power into their demonstration, US actress Kim Basinger joined activists from animal rights group Last Chance for Animals (LCA) Friday protesting against the dog meat trade on “dog meat day” or Boknal, a day when the meat was traditionally eaten in the country.
For decades, South Korea has faced criticism over its treatment of animals and the country’s ongoing custom of consuming dog meat, and South Korean animal rights activists have been at the forefront of attempting to shut down the trade.
Now a bill is being proposed that would make the killing of dogs for food illegal.
Holding a model of a dead dog for the cameras, Basinger said, “sometimes pictures speak 1,000 words more than we could ever with our voices.”
Basinger has long campaigned for animal rights but this is her first time in South Korea as she joins efforts to lobby lawmakers to garner support for the bill.
She said she hopes any changes in the country could have a knock-on effect elsewhere.
“I do think that government is going to have to not turn a blind eye and really come up with solutions like this,” she said. “South Korea is going to be the leader for this, it’s going to be known for this and it’s going to trickle down.”
South Korean lawmaker Pyo Chang-won is pushing to pass the bill that would make the killing of dogs and cats for food illegal, but he acknowledges that it only has minority support in the National Assembly.
Pyo said he has the support of President Moon Jae-in – who is known to be a dog lover and adopted a shelter dog when he first came to power – but Pyo said it is not an official policy of Moon’s party, so lawmakers can make individual decisions.
“Many of the congressmen are based in rural areas where dog farms exist and they are under pressure not to talk about the bill, not to support the bill, not to allow the bill coming on the table,” he told CNN.
Basinger has been meeting lawmakers and local governors in the hope of pushing the bill forward.
LCA founder Chris DeRose addressed supporters Friday, declaring, “South Korea is not alone anymore, this is a global movement,” to rounds of applause.
Statements were drowned out at times by the opposing camp. Farmers slammed parliament for what they see as putting dogs’ rights above those of humans.
Banners declared the supposed benefits that eating dog meat have: “Collagen, skin beauty, osteoporosis, joint diseases, anti-aging.”
Humane Society International (HIS) said in 2016 they believed around 2 million dogs were being kept in around 17,000 facilities in South Korea but there have been changes since then.
Last year the country’s largest dog slaughterhouse was shut down by local officials in Taepyeong, in a satellite city of Seoul. HIS said hundreds of thousands of dogs were killed by electrocution each year in this facility and their remains sold for meat.
Earlier this month, Gupo dog meat market in the southern city of Busan, one of the country’s largest, was closed down with the help of its mayor, Oh Seo-don. He said publicly to Busan residents, “I think you are people who have a philosophy for respecting life. Without that philosophy, this could never be done by pushing it unilaterally.”
For those supporting the dog meat industry, these closures are of great concern. Dog farmer Lee Young Byoung told CNN: “There’s tradition, our culture and before so many people in Korea (were) very poor, (and did) not eat protein.”
Lee also said people should have the freedom to choose what they eat.
Public opinion is swaying in the direction of animal rights’ groups as more South Koreans have dogs as pets and say they wouldn’t eat dog meat.
But a Realmeter survey in November 2018 asked those polled if they agreed with legislation banning the slaughter of dogs. While 44% said they agreed, 43% said they disagreed, showing a slower increase in support for criminalizing the practice.
As for the argument by dog farmers that eating dog meat is cultural, LCA’s DeRose is blunt.
“In our country we had a culture called slavery, we abolished it. It’s over, some cultures just don’t need to exist anymore,” he said.