Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Should we eat dogs - or object when others do so? With an American presidential visit to South Korea and the soccer World Cup approaching, activists on both sides of the issue are gearing up for battle.
Kyenan Kum of International Aid for Korean Animals (IAKA), an animal welfare group based in Oakland, California, urged supporters this week to write to President Bush, asking him to take up the matter with President Kim Dae-jung when Bush visits Seoul next month.
"We are asking Americans to contact President Bush and ask him to broach the subject of dog and cat consumption in South Korea when he meets with President Kim," she explained Wednesday. "We hope that he will use his power to persuade the Korean president to make a new law that will protect dogs and cats from being eaten."
The latest shot in the campaign comes as Korean proponents of dog- and cat-meat eating prepare to launch a national campaign to promote the culinary practice. They even hope to persuade foreigners visiting for the World Cup to sample spicy dog soup.
South Korea and Japan are co-hosting the tournament, one of the largest sporting events in the world, in the early summer.
Kum said more than two million dogs and cats are "tortured, slaughtered and consumed" in South Korea each year.
Animal rights campaigners should call for a total abolition of the trade, she said, rather than simply legal regulation of the farming and slaughtering process, as some groups have called for.
"Regulating the slaughter of dogs and cats will not raise the status of dogs and cats, but will instead strip them of any chance at being accepted and regarded as companion animals," she said.
Although the practice is banned, activists say dogs are still being beaten before being killed and cooked. The tradition of clubbing the animals reportedly arises from the belief that the adrenaline released during the assault enhances the meat's alleged qualities of boosting the consumer's virility.
IAKA and allied organizations are calling for a boycott of the World Cup, scheduled for May 31-June 30, unless the Korean government takes firm measures against eating dogs and cats.
Last year soccer's international governing body, FIFA, upset some Koreans when it sent a letter to Korean soccer officials calling for an end to cruelty to dogs ahead of the competition.
"The World Cup would serve as an appropriate moment for Korea to show the world that it is sensitive to vociferous worldwide public opinion and that it rejects cruelty," FIFA president Sepp Blatter wrote at the time.
What animal campaigners call cruelty, supporters call a culinary tradition, and even some Koreans who would not eat dog meat question the right of foreigners to try to impose their cultural norms.
Many fear the government will clamp down on canine cuisine ahead of the World Cup, as it did during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when the sale of "foods deemed unsightly" was banned.
In a bid to pre-empt any such move, hundreds of dog meat restaurateurs this week were planning to launch a federation to promote dog meat to foreign visitors in the run-up to the tournament.
Their plans include the launching of English- and Japanese-language websites to defend the eating of dog meat as part of Koreans' national culture.
They will hold sampling parties for foreigners and publicize restaurants near World Cup venues, and a food science professor, Ahn Yong-keun, plans to promote some of his more than 350 recipes for dishes using dog meat.
"I am sure that Westerners will like dog meat if they eat it," the professor, who has acquired the nickname "Dr. Dogmeat," was quoted this week as saying. "It is tasty and healthy."
But in a setback Monday, a rally and seminar at which the drive was to have been launched had to be cancelled after hundreds of animal rights activists called up the company owning the venue near Seoul, protesting its use for the purpose.
Many in the pro-dog-meat lobby would like to see a law passed regulating the industry and taking action against anyone who slaughters dogs inhumanely. Several dozen lawmakers are supporting a bill, to be debated next month, that would legalize the slaughtering of dogs for eating and enforce laws banning cruelty.
Killing dogs and cats humanely, the dog meat eaters say, is important, but the centuries-old tradition of eating them should not be stopped.
"Raising dogs for food is a unique Korean tradition," according to Choi Han-gwon, a researcher at an economic institute. "Efforts to spread the practice world-wide are required."
Despite reports that around three million of South Korea's 47 million people eat dog meat as a delicacy, Kum of the IAKA disagrees with claims of a lengthy tradition.
"Dog-eating is not now, nor has it ever been a traditional Korean food ... the relatively-recent phenomenon of farming [and] selling dogs and cats for food in Korea is nothing more than exploitation of an easy-to-produce commodity - nothing more, nothing less," she said.
Animal rights campaigners have since last November held protest demonstrations at Korean facilities in London, New York, Australia and Argentina.
More are planned in the months leading up to the World Cup, although not during Bush's visit to Seoul.
"We have contemplated it, but security will be so incredibly high, and demonstrations have never been able to be held in close proximity to visiting foreign dignitaries and specifically U.S. presidents," Kum said.
Although some Chinese and Filipinos also eat dogs, the citizens Japan -- South Korea's co-host in the competition -- do not.
Nonetheless, some Japanese media in recent months have come out in support of Koreans' right to eat dog meat, saying the country had the right to "preserve its traditional culinary culture" in the face of Western criticism.