A short drive from the burning Olympic torch and the excited throng of Winter Games spectators, there was no cheering outside the place where hundreds of dogs are packed in cages until they are killed for their meat.
In the rural region of Wonju, down a winding country lane, sits a farm that provides dog meat to some of the thousands of South Korean restaurants where patrons order things such as dog salad, dog ribs, dog stew and dog hot pot.
The grim surroundings of the farm pains the senses. The first thing to be noticed is the sound, pitiful whines and yelps of about 300 animals being kept in filthy cages until their execution.
Step closer and the stench fills the nostrils, a sickening waft that spreads over two long rows of cramped cages.
Some of the dogs do not survive long enough to be slaughtered. Lying discarded on the mud floor by the plastic awning, the carcass of a dead Tosa – a rare breed that originated in Japan. Also in the cages were Jindos, St. Bernards and golden Labradors.
Most were emaciated. Many had gaps in their fur where huge sores grew on their bodies. The cages are elevated, set up so dog feces drops through gaps in the wire bottom, collecting in huge piles beneath.
USA TODAY video journalist Sandy Hooper and myself filmed the gruesome scene for 15 minutes on Saturday morning, using GoPros and iPhones. When we approached the front of the property in an attempt to speak to the owners, a man screamed in Korean: "Turn it off, otherwise I’m going to throw it down!”
The Winter Olympics is supposed to be one giant commercial for South Korea and its winter tourism industry, but no public relations effort can cast a favorable light on the Korean dog meat industry. Pyeongchang organizing officials were aware enough of the likely international reaction to Korean dog meat eating practices that they paid nearby restaurants to take down signs advertising the product’s availability and pleaded with them to take it off the menu – at least during the Olympics.
It didn’t work. Two miles from Jinbu station, the main hub serving the primary mountain cluster of the Games, a trio of restaurants openly served dog products. They had amended their frontage signs to remove the word “bosintang” (dog meat stew) and promote goat meat instead, but that was only outside.
Walk inside and glance up at the giant white board and the first four menu items, in English and Korean, are derived from man’s best friend. An elderly Korean man removed his shoes, entered the room, ordered the stew and sat down at a row of tables on the floor. Soon, he was served the thick brown concoction and began slurping down the soup until it was all gone.
In Korean culture, dog meat is said to have mythical properties that boost restorative powers and increase virility. Fearing a backlash from traditionalists, the Korean government won’t amend the law, despite president Moon Jae-In having adopted a dog saved from the meat industry.
Pyeongchang organizers wish government officials would take action.
“We are aware of the international concern around the consumption of dog meat in Korea,” an organizing committee statement read. “This is a matter which the government should address. We hope that this issue will not impact on the delivery or reputation of the Games and the province and we will support the work of the province and government on this topic as needed. Also, dog meat will not be served at any Games venue.”
Eating dog meat is a custom here and it is hard to dispute that. In the United States millions of animals of countless varieties are slaughtered each year for meat. To some, the plight of Korean dogs is scarcely any different to that of American chicken, cows or pigs. To others, there is something vastly different about a dog, given its relationship to humans.
Activists in Korea don’t like the use of dogs for meat but mainly focus their protest efforts on the methods of killing the animals and their conditions in captivity.
“If the Korean people stop eating dog meat there will not be the market for it,” Kim Jun-Won, president of the Dasom animal rights organization said, fighting back tears when shown photographs of our footage as we returned to our vehicle. “But this is wrong and it breaks my heart. The people who keep animals this way and kill them? They are the devil.”
Demand is decreasing, with dog meat meals not particularly popular with younger members of Korean society. As well as the one described above, USA TODAY Sports visited two other farms in the area that showed signs of being operational recently. Both were closed, with the dried feces and even bones of deceased dogs still visible.
“The problem is that while smaller facilities close due to lack of business, larger, better organized ones are popping up,” Kiana Kang, director of programs and special projects of American non-profit rescue organization Animal Hope and Wellness said. “This is the two Koreas. There is the beauty and the culture, and then there is this.”
Korean dog farmers claim their sole intention is to try to make a living and insist the animals are the same as livestock.
A group of Winter Olympic athletes, including Canadian figure skater Meagan Duhamel, freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis took part in a recent public service announcement in a bid to raise awareness about the Korean dog meat trade. Duhamel already owns a rescue Korean dog.
The United States and Canada are leaders in trying to rescue Korean dogs and provide them with a new life. In a recent USA TODAY Sports interview, Californian couple Lana Chung Peck and her husband Kevin Peck described how many of the animals they foster and rehabilitate through the Save Korean Dogs organization have significant issues.
Chung Peck said her dogs cannot initially walk properly on grass or firm ground, because most of their lives had previously been spent in the cages, scrambling to get firm footing on the hard thin metal.
Meanwhile, at the Games, the first medals were being doled out. The plight of Korea’s dogs isn’t going to be the major narrative of the Games, the events themselves and the lingering political turmoil dominate the headlines.
But it is here, happening not far from the Olympics, and it’s tough to stomach.