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Why dog meat became a story at these Olympics and why, culturally, it is slowly changing

A menu from inside a Pyeongchang restaurant. Sam Borden

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- About five minutes' walk from the Olympic Stadium, past a European-style bakery and down a narrow side street, is a restaurant named Young-hoon Boyangtang. There is a menu posted next to the front door. The top item on the menu is listed, first in Korean and with an English translation alongside, as "Nutritious Soup."

"We have athletes who come in here and eat it -- skiers, golfers, they order it a lot," said a woman working inside. "It's for strength. Many Korean doctors recommend it for patients who are having chemotherapy, too."

The restaurant employee, who did not give her name, added, "A lot of people are talking about it now but this restaurant has always served it."

The conversation that has developed around Young-hoon Boyangtang (and other restaurants like it) over the two weeks of the Olympics here is both global and entirely predictable. The cause? That menu item. "Nutritious Soup" is a culinary euphemism for dog-meat stew.

Here is a rough timeline of what happened: As foreigners, especially members of the media, arrived in South Korea for the Games, a slew of articles, videos and social media posts highlighting the dog-meat restaurants -- as well as the treatment of dogs raised to be slaughtered -- was published.

Many, if not most, were overtly critical in theme or tone, and the resulting emotional response in Western countries -- Dogs are pets! How can someone eat them? -- led to an equally strong reaction from South Koreans: First, there was anger over the hypocrisy of Western visitors who find it intolerable that South Koreans eat dog meat but would surely be offended if, say, a journalist from India, where the population is largely vegetarian, did an "exposé" criticizing the American culture of eating beef while covering an Olympics in the United States.

And second, there was a larger frustration over the simplification of a cultural norm that blends history, generational differences, health laws, bureaucracy and culinary progress into a complicated issue that, in reality, is slowly changing here on its own.

"South Koreans are actually going through a cultural shift in terms of what they eat -- it's a much more globalized diet than it used to be," said Jean Lee, a former foreign correspondent in North Korea who is now a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in DC. "Younger South Koreans are not eating dog meat nearly as much so, one by one, these dog meats shops are closing down."

"Younger South Koreans are not eating dog meat nearly as much so, one by one, these dog meats shops are closing down." Jean Lee, a former foreign correspondent in North Korea who is now a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center

That phenomenon is especially pronounced in Seoul, the capitol where about half of South Korea's 50 million people live. In outer regions, however -- such as Gangwon province, where the Olympics are being held -- the change is slower.

That is why the government offered restaurants serving dog meat financial incentives before the Games to alter their menus, use euphemisms -- like Nutritious Soup -- or otherwise obscure their offerings in an effort to avoid making foreign visitors uncomfortable. Some restaurants did so -- at Young-hoon Boyangtang, a large piece of black tape obscures part of the restaurant's main signage -- but dog meat, whether in soups or as cutlets, is still readily available.

"It's all meat -- with dog meat, if you boil it in soup, it's very soft and the oils in the meat will melt into the soup," Kim Shin-mi, 58, said while walking near the main Olympic ticketing area this week. "A lot of men eat it because it's good for health. It's not as much fat as the other meats. ... It's personal preference, I think."

Baek Ji-yeon, a 23-year-old who was with a friend near the Olympic Park, said, "It doesn't make sense if you're eating dogs for pets, but if you're eating dogs that are made for food, it's OK."

She added, "I think it's OK for older people to eat dog meat."

Those two points are important in considering the issue as a whole here. The notion that dogs are raised for their meat (as opposed to for companionship) is a centuries-old piece of Korean culture and, as Baek said, it is something that older Koreans, in particular, still believe. For years, dog meat was an important source of protein -- it still is in much of North Korea -- and even now, there is a tradition of eating dog meat soup on several of the hottest days of the summer so as to bolster one's strength.

The custom has deep roots. Ahn Young-geun, a university professor and former director of the Korean Society of Food and Nutrition, authored a book called "Koreans and Dog Meat" and runs a similarly themed website. In one post, he cites a Korean medical encyclopedia from 1613 that says eating dog meat "comforts the digestive systems, such as small and large intestines, strengthens our stomach, supplements marrow to warm our knees and waist, and raises vigor to make men virile."

Many South Koreans, however, have switched to eating chicken soup on those summer days and studies show that the generational gap over the place of dogs on Korean society is shifting. A 2015 Gallup Korea survey found that 39 percent of people in their 50s said they ate dog meat at least once a year while only 17 percent of respondents in their 20s said they did.

Lee, the former correspondent who is now at the Wilson Center, said an underlying issue is the lack of regulations for humane and sanitary dog meat farming in South Korea, which has led to "horrifying" conditions and treatment of dogs. About 2 million dogs are reportedly slaughtered for meat annually in South Korea -- far fewer, by some estimates, than the number of rabbits killed for food in the United States -- and Lee said the more urgent concern is the treatment of the farmed animals (an issue not exclusive to South Korea). "Either they have to find some way to regulate the farming of dog meat or they need to get rid of the practice," she said.

Lee added that she has a dog, Mochi, who is a rescue dog from a South Korean dog meat farm. Lee said she hopes Mochi serves as a rebuttal to the notion that, as many South Koreans have long believed, there is a significant difference between "street dogs," which are bred for meat, and so-called designer dogs, who are suitable as companions.

That attitude, like the perception of dog meat as an attractive food, is slowly changing too. An online survey of nearly 4,000 Koreans in 2017 found that 58 percent of respondents do not eat dog meat because they consider dogs to be pets.

"We used to eat everything we farmed -- we had to," said Jeong Yoon-young, who traveled from Seoul to attend the Olympics. "But I think as time passes, the culture will change. It's not even mainstream culture right now."

Dasl Yoon contributed to the reporting of this story.