During a lesson on describing animals, I asked my students about South Korea’s national animal. Foreheads wrinkled. Eyes glanced sideways. “Tiger?” said one student. “Bear?” said another. They looked to their Korean teacher for help. No-one was sure. In the 20 classes I taught that week, none of my 700+ students could provide a confident answer. One student asked me if there were tigers in South Africa. “No sweetie; that animal is from your part of the world”, I told her.

Coming from a country where a reverence for animals – both wild and domestic – is bound up in national culture, I was surprised at my students’ lack of ecological awareness. I had to remind myself, though, that the country was recovering from a highly traumatic period in its history, in which war and an economic crisis contributed to an environment in which people found it difficult to survive. Typically, in political situations like this, animal welfare takes a backseat. Now, in its post-development phase, South Korea has adopted very specific ideas of progress which don’t prioritise animal welfare. As the Korean Animal Rights Activists (KARA) explains, “rapid economic development has been at the expense of ethical development, and animal abuse is symptomatic of that [neglect]”.

Ironically, the two animals my students mentioned – the Amur Tiger and Asiatic Black Bear – have been subject to some of the worst treatment in Korea. There aren’t many big animals left here in general: the Korea Forest Service explains that “human settlement, loss of forest habitat and over-hunting” have caused the eradication of most large mammals in the country. The Amur (Siberian) Tiger is, in fact, the national animal, but there are none left in the country. Bears and wildcats are limited to tiny areas in the country’s two largest national parks – Jirisan and Seoraksan. Whales are also under threat. In late 2011, South Korea attempted to resume its whaling practices, but supposedly backed down after global outcry. However, Greenpeace has just launched a campaign to stop the government’s scientific whaling program, which it says will go ahead in December 2012. Apart from this, a recent report by the BBC shows that illegal whaling still occurs in parts of the country.

A Careless Cruelty

Animals that have survived the rapid destruction of their natural habitat are often subject to shocking cruelty and slaughter. Here are three recent cases: in January 2011, the government buried around 1.5 million pigsalive after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease – a mass vaccinationwas later instigated. In May 2012, an ex-Buddhist monk was sentenced to six months in prison after killing a dog with an axe. And in July 2012, two bears who escaped a bile farm were shot dead by police on capture.

Along with China and Vietnam, South Korea is one of three countries that allow Moon Bear bile farming. The bile is extracted via a tube or catheter and sold as an ingredient for Chinese medicine. ‘Milking’ the bears is illegal in South Korea, but killing them is not. I was surprised to discover that most of these farms are near Daegu area, where I live, since there is a huge oriental market here, despite the fact that that there are alternatives to bear bile. There are currently fewer than 20 bears left in the Jirisan National Park. The government has taken some steps to investigate the industry and end the trade, while organisations like Bear Necessity Korea are working to speed the process.

Live Lunches and Suicide Food

Owners of seafood restaurants are committed to serving fresh food, and so often display tanks of live seafood outside their premises. While some of these are shellfish and invertebrates (which, as far as we know, are less sentient), fish, eels and octopi are also stored. Octopi, which we know are highly intelligent, are eaten live or boiled live in a stew.

People here seem to be less sensitive to the suffering of animals, and don’t share the West’s habit of disassociating meat from its source. Butchers will often have stuffed animals in their display cabinets and somerestaurants display a cartoon version of the animal on the menuSuicide Food, as the trend is named, is not unique to Korea but prevalent in the US, Australia and Japan. It’s a crass (though fairly amusing) practice, and a good indication of Korean attitudes to animal sentience.

Animals on Shelves

I am not claiming that there are no ‘animal-lovers’ in Korea. Many people own pets, most of which are small dogs or cats – as most people live in apartments. While some are treated well, dogs are often kept permanently on chains or in enclosed spaces. Handbag-dogs are trendy here too, though I suspect for the same reasons that they are in the West. They are equally objectified, as is made evident by the pet-storage facilities at Lotte Department Store. You can lock up your handbag, dog included, for the duration of your shopping time in a locker conveniently equipped with air holes. At my local E-mart, one can buy a pet turtle, hedgehog or rabbit just a couple of aisles from the groceries. The living-conditions in stores like this are abominable.

Markets also sell pets that are stored and sold like groceries. The sellers at Dongnae Market in Busan were genuinely surprised when I asked whether these tortoises and toads were meant to be eaten:

So while some animals are seen as companions, they are treated as objects.  In a similarly contradictory attitude to animals, pet-themed cafes allow patrons to enjoy both coffee and cuddles with cats or dogs. These cafes, while a treat for genuine animal-lovers, reduce the animals to live fluffy toys. The individuality of these animals is seemingly irrelevant, and they are valuable in as far as they add to the novelty of the café.


So far, I’ve been highly critical of the attitude toward animals in mainstream culture in Korea. However, since the first animal rights law was only created in 2007, it’s fair to say that animal welfare is a recent concept in Korean culture. As KARA says on its site, “the concept of animal rights has not entered into public consciousness as much as it has in other developed countries”.

There are some key organisations that are working to transform these cultural attitudes. Groups such as KARA, Co-existence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE), the Korean Society for Animal Freedom and the Korean Animals Protection Society (KAPS) are making headway in their fight for change. Many revisions were made to the laws regarding animal welfare in July 2011, including higher penalties for those who abuse animals and the need for retailers such as E-mart to obtain a licence to sell animals. I’m yet to see any difference at my local store, and CARE has asked the public to aid in sending an official letter to the Director of Animal Welfare, Seo Kyo-Young, asking to enforce and adapt the law. As CARE says, the Act “does not include the definition of animal abuse, humanitarian rearing, transportation and butchery of animals or the prohibition of [animals being] buried alive”.

On 7 August, one of the hottest days of summer when some Koreans traditionally eat dog meat, CARE and KAPS organised a protest against the consumption of dog-meat. Frankie Herrington’s article in Busan Haps does a thorough job of summarising the state of the industry.

While eating dog-meat is the most notorious act of animal cruelty in Korea, it is certainly no different from the cruelty against stock animals present in unethical farming practices. I am not suggesting that the eating of dog-meat should be ignored because it’s a cultural practice – all harmful cultural practices should be challenged – but merely that non-Korean approaches to Korean dog meat are also culturally-informed and similarly problematic.

I don’t think it’s helpful to compare Korea’s treatment of animals with that of other countries – developed or undeveloped – because the treatment of animals should never be associated with national sovereignty or diplomacy. Besides, it’s difficult to find a country where animals are legally protected and their safety enshrined in the constitution. Considering the recent founding of organisations like KARA and CARE (both in 2002), it does seem that a change in the treatment of animals is possible in Korea, even if it’s slow.

The Animal Protection Act is detailed in English on CARE’s site. Citizens who witness acts of cruelty and neglect can contact the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service on 1797 – the hotline for animal mistreatment.

Written and photographed by Deva Lee of The Culture Muncher. Head to her blog for some additional points (not included here due to length) and to comment or ask questions.

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