A California woman who’s never traveled to Spokane is asking city leaders to pressure the South Korean government to end the practice of trading dog meat for consumption.
“I’ve always been a dog lover,” said Giny Woo, a native of the coastal city of Incheon who relocated to the United States 30 years ago. “I felt like I had to do something.”
Growing up, Woo said she was introduced to dog meat by her parents in a soup, which is one of the most common uses of dog meat in South Korean dishes. An accountant by trade, Woo said she was moved to action while on maternity leave after the birth of her son five years ago, and has since spent more than 40 hours a week crafting online petitions that she delivers to American municipalities who participate in the Sister Cities program with South Korea.
“I never went back to work,” she said. “It’s too important to me.”
Spokane declared Jecheon, a transportation hub of roughly 150,000 residents, a sister city in 1999. That connection led Woo to author a petition aimed at Mayor David Condon, asking that he tell Jecheon’s leaders Spokane is opposed to “the torture and consumption of dogs and cats.”
As of Friday morning, the petition had 2,971 signers. Almost all those who have commented on the petition do not live in Spokane, based on their online profiles.
Brian Coddington, a spokesman for Condon, said the office is aware of the petition and monitoring it, but the Sister City relationship is handled by a citizen’s board of volunteers.
Hyunki Ahn, a Spokane resident who grew up in Jecheon, is the Sister City board’s designee for the relationship with the Korean city. Ahn, who moved to the United States in 1974, has never eaten dog meat, but acknowledged it’s a traditional practice with deep cultural roots.
“It’s supposed to soothe your organs, regulate blood pressure and pulse,” Ahn said.
Ahn likened the practice of eating dogs to eating other types of livestock that have grown old and died naturally on family farms. She remembers raising rabbits that she grew attached to, but she ate them when the time came.
Clark Sorensen, chair of the Korean Studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote in an email that dog is not eaten routinely in the country.
“It is not an everyday experience, but a special occasion either because of sickness or for special conviviality,” Sorensen wrote.
The International Humane Society targeted puppy mills in South Korea last year believed to be selling dogs for slaughter. The Associated Press reported that more than a hundred dogs were rescued as part of the operations in 2016.
Koreans are split on eating dogs, Ahn said, but are slowly moving toward ending the practice because of outside pressure and a growing sentiment that companion animals shouldn’t be eaten. She said that process should be left to Koreans to finish.
“Korea is a real old country, with old traditions,” Ahn said. “There is a value judgment” in other cultures criticizing those traditions, she said.
Woo, the California activist, said her group of volunteers already is seeing some success. Her website, Koreandogs.org, lists the responses they’ve received from cities throughout the United States, with varying degrees of achievement. On Dec. 21, Woo received a letter from the office of the mayor of Shoreline, Washington, pledging to raise the issue with their sister city, Boryeong.
In a response from Seattle’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, dated Oct. 18, officials said they appreciated the concern about treatment of animals, but lacked “jurisdiction” to raise the issue with their sister city, Daejeon.
“Our relationship with Daejeon has led to many exchanges, friendships and cultural events between Seattleites and the people of Daejeon,” said the response, posted by the Koreandogs organization. Seattle officials confirmed the letter’s authenticity.
Woo said she was heartened by a recent announcement from South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Services to increase protections for companion animals, including cats and dogs, and impose stiffer penalties for operators of puppy mills and other unauthorized sales of animals. She hopes more progress will be made by the time the 2018 Winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in Pyeongchang.
“There will be a lot of attention, a lot of focus, a lot of eyes on Korea, throughout the world,” she said. “This will be a platinum opportunity for us to shed a light on this industry, and issue.”