Two crusaders - an American and a Korean - are on a mission to expose the inhumane conditions and slaughter practices of the South Korean dog meat trade. The industry that supplies ‘dog’ to restaurants is a murky underworld of secrecy, theft, illegal auction houses, and animal rights abuse, however. Trying to expose it could cost them their lives.
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True Spies Episode 66: Mission in the Dog Meat Valley

DISCLAIMER: Warning, this episode contains descriptions of animal cruelty that some listeners might find disturbing.

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 66: Mission in the Dog Meat Valley.

NINA JACKEL: We drove around the area where we thought it might be until we saw some signs that it was close. We saw a pile of dog bones and skulls on the side of the road and we knew that it was probably nearby.

NARRATOR: What do you know about the dog meat trade?

NINA JACKEL: A little bit further and we started to hear the sounds of dogs barking - a lot of dogs - and then we knew that it was pretty much right there.

NARRATOR: Our spy is searching for a dog meat farm in the Gimpo Valley in South Korea. 

NAMI KIM: This is called ‘The Valley of Dog Meat.’

NARRATOR: About an hour north of Seoul.

NAMI KIM: Which is close to the border of North Korea. This is the city that you can actually swim across to North Korea. 

NARRATOR: Two crusaders - a Korean and an American - are on a mission to expose the inhumane conditions and slaughter practices of the South Korean dog meat trade.

NAMI KIM: They are kept in rusty, filthy cages. And all these dog farmers, they collect food waste, the garbage leftover from the restaurants, and then they feed the dogs with this.

NARRATOR: But getting close to these dog farms isn’t easy and it’s even harder to get inside. While you might see ‘dog’ on the menu in restaurants across Asia, the industry that supplies those restaurants is a murky underworld of secrecy, theft, illegal auction houses, and animal rights abuse. Trying to expose it could cost you your life.

NAMI KIM: The message that I received those days were: “I will slaughter you the way I slaughtered dogs.”

NARRATOR: Our spies in this episode aren’t the kind you’d find working for the CIA or MI6, but animal rights activists using spycraft to bring down their adversary and fight for a cause they passionately believe in. Step forward Nami Kim, founder of Save Korean Dogs and Nina Jackel founder of Lady Freethinker. 

NARRATOR: In the West, dogs are strictly companions or working animals but across Asia in countries like China and South Korea, dog meat is a source of food.

NAMI KIM: It's been a tradition. A lot of the elderly say this is one of the traditional foods. And, in those days, people just kept dogs at home, and then once the dog became big enough, they cooked their own dog. This has been a practice in almost all of the villages in South Korea. After the Korean War, we didn't have much to eat, and dog meat was the main source of getting protein. 

NARRATOR: In 2018 it was estimated that South Koreans kill two million dogs each year for food. Eating dog meat is usually associated with the Boknal Festival - or ‘dog eating days’ that happens on the hottest day of the summer, according to the lunar calendar. Attendees at the festival hope to extract some medicinal healing powers from the meat, believing that it will keep them cool in the hot weather. 

NINA JACKEL: South Korea is the only country in the world that has these commercial dog meat farms that are, in a lot of ways, similar to our own factory farms here in the United States. No other countries do that. A lot of countries have underground dog meat trades - where you have people stealing dogs, or doing things in the black market, or under the radar - but in South Korea, it is actually legal.

NARRATOR: But what’s not legal is the way the animals are treated in the Korean dog meat trade. Korea has animal protection and welfare laws but local and international animal rights activists say these are violated throughout. Shocking footage captured in 2018 by journalists at USA Today showed dogs kept in cramped filthy cages, their bones visible from starvation, and their skin covered in oozing sores from beatings and sickness. It is alleged they are fed human waste and sometimes even other animals who have died from disease. Photos show dogs who don’t make it until slaughter time, left for dead alongside their surviving cage mates. If you were imagining a barn attached to a paddock or even sheds you might find at a dairy farm - this is not that. These are cramped, squalid cages stacked row after row.

NAMI KIM: Let me just clarify this, farming pigs or cows or whatever other animals… One thing about dog farming, you must hang a dog, and then you really beat hard when it is still alive. The more the dog gets beaten, the more the meat becomes very tender because of the beating. This has been the practice. 

NARRATOR: It’s believed that the adrenaline the dog releases due to the stress of the beating makes the meat more tender. Protection laws passed in South Korea in the 1990s also prohibit killing animals in a brutal way, and specifies the authorized ways in which to slaughter livestock - by gas or stunning - but activists say that those methods are not usually used. In the shadow of the 2018 Winter Olympics, international concerns were raised about the way dogs were being kept and slaughtered in Korea - using methods like burning, de-furring or repeated electrocution. But the Dog Meat Farmers Association defended their right to keep dogs, denying the allegations of mistreatment and said they had the right to treat dogs as any other animal being raised for human consumption.

NAMI KIM: This was just too shocking for me. I'm a city person. I was born in Seoul. I grew up in Seoul, so I've never really had that exposure to such cruelty.

NARRATOR: Nami began rescuing dogs in 2011, after retiring from her role as a professor of comparative religious studies.

NAMI KIM: It was about time for me to really quit teaching and come into this full time.

NARRATOR: Her trailblazing organization Save Korean Dogs is known as the first generation of dog meat trade campaigners in the country.

NAMI KIM: It's been 10 years and eight months now. I see the urgency here and I just cannot forget some of the eyes in live dogs on display in dog meat markets. 

NARRATOR: Her Facebook page shows video after video of all manner of dogs in all manner of conditions being rescued by her organization. Sometimes they will pay a farmer for the dogs. Other times the farmer gives them away if he sees no value in them as livestock. 

NINA JACKEL: Nami is probably the bravest person I've ever met. She's fearless and dedicated and will do absolutely anything to help dogs. Saving dogs is her life and it's what she does. I don't know how many dogs she's saved from the meat trade. When I met her, I noticed her energy. She has a lot of it. She's extremely active and very dedicated and focused on what she does.

NARRATOR: When Nami teamed up with animal rights activist Nina Jackel, the pair became a force to be reckoned with.

NINA JACKEL: I've been an animal person for as long as I can possibly remember, starting when I was a very small girl. We had a dog named Dogus, whom I love very much. And my sister and I also both had a menagerie of stuffed animals that we loved in the way that children love stuffed animals. They've always been really dear to my heart. And after Dogus passed away, sadly, we got another rescue dog named Peggy who became my best friend. And, I think, at that age - I was around 10 when we got her - I think I was old enough to really start thinking about animals as being their own beings. And because of Peggy, I really started thinking about how animals feel and I developed a really strong empathy for them that I've had ever since.

NARRATOR: She trained as a journalist, learning skills that would later prove useful on the ground in South Korea.

NINA JACKEL: When I started working as a journalist, I started having the opportunity to actually use my voice to speak out for animals. And, at first, it was very subtle. I was writing about nutrition. That just happens to be cruelty-free as well. But then, when I started doing more freelance journalism and branching out, I started writing for animal rights organizations. And it was the first time that I really got an inside look at animal activism. I saw that there were people actually dedicating their careers to speaking out for animals and fighting against animal cruelty. That was when I realized I could do even more than what I was already doing.

NARRATOR: She started an organization called Lady Freethinker and that’s how she came across the dog meat trade in Korea and the people fighting against it, people like Nami.

NINA JACKEL: I was working with a group of organizations here in Los Angeles who were creating an educational video, it was actually about the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, which is in China. But it was kind of my entryway into the world of the dog meat trade. That was probably about eight years ago. And that's probably right about the time when I met Nami.

NARRATOR: For years they worked together, Nina in the US and Nami in South Korea, putting up billboards around the United States to raise awareness about the dog meat trade.

NINA JACKEL: I had been campaigning against it from afar, from the United States, but I'd never actually seen it in person - which is not an easy thing to do - but I felt like I should. And I also wanted to document it because the best way to shut it down and get those laws passed is to get people to speak out against it. And in order to do that, you have to show them the truth. You have to show them what's happening to these dogs. So I wanted to document a dog meat farm and then expose what we found.

NARRATOR: So, in the summer of 2019, the pair hatched a plan and Nina boarded a plane heading to South Korea.

NINA JACKEL: So I flew out there with Ben, my husband, who is also very much a part of Lady Freethinker, and he cares a lot about saving these dogs also. We brought some cameras - we brought a GoPro and a handheld camera - and we went there with the intention of finding dog farms, and filming them, and then showing our audience what we found.

NARRATOR: With Nami at the wheel, they headed to the Gimpo Valley.

NAMI KIM: This used to be the main supplier of dog meat. There are about 200 dog farms that still exist in Gimpo, being urbanized, being modernized. We are just one hour from Seoul, so you can imagine how many dog farms there are all over Korea.

NARRATOR: Their mission was dangerous. Throughout 10 years as an activist, Nami has been sent terrifying warnings.

NAMI KIM: The message that I received was: “I will slaughter you the way I slaughtered dogs. And then which part do you want to be dismembered first?”

NARRATOR: When she first started receiving the messages she took her concerns to the police. They examined her laptop and phone to trace the IP address and discovered they were coming from someone in China, though they never discovered who. Nami says she still gets warnings and threats from people within the dog meat trade in South Korea. People who don’t want her interfering. They prowl around the Save Korean Dogs sanctuary trying to deter her.

NAMI KIM: Following our cars, our van. They just drive around our sanctuary. We have another little space for dog training and some of the dogs I kept there all died, six of them. So I set up cameras immediately. And I think these dogs were poisoned to death. I think I'm exposed to danger at any time. They target me and the dogs as well. To protect myself, I have our police patrolling the area where we are five times a day. I'm putting up more cameras. 

NARRATOR: It’s hard for Nami and the police to find out who they are and stop them.

NAMI KIM: They don't leave any trace behind.

NARRATOR: So it’s 2019, a humid July day in Gimpo, South Korea. Nami is driving Nina and her husband Ben into the valley of dog meat.

NINA JACKEL: It was July of 2019 and Nami knew that there was a dog meat farm run by the Dog Meat Farmers Association, a large farm that could hold up to 1,000 dogs. We knew the general area, but we didn't know exactly where it was. So Nami drove and Ben and I were in the van and we drove around the area where we thought it might be until we saw some signs that it was close. We saw a pile of dog bones and skulls on the side of the road, and we knew that it was probably nearby. We drove a little bit further and we started to hear the sounds of dogs barking - a lot of dogs. And then we knew that it was pretty much right there. It was very well hidden. There was a wall. And then behind the wall was the farm, which was mostly covered in tarps because they didn't want the public to see it. We'd brought a ladder. We set the ladder up against the wall. And Ben climbed up at first with his camera and he saw the dogs.

NARRATOR: Rows and rows of locked cages all stacked up with sickly-looking dogs crammed inside under plastic tarps despite the sweltering humidity. The stench was almost unbearable.

NINA JACKEL: He took out his camera to check out his zoom lens because it was hidden a little bit away from the road and started taking photographs and video. Nami climbed up the ladder, she took video with her cell phone. I climbed up. We all kind of took turns. 

NARRATOR: What are they looking for? They’re looking to collect evidence. Evidence that the farmers aren’t adhering to the Korean welfare protection laws. They’re strictly required to provide appropriate water, food, and exercise space for their animals, including livestock. But this was not what they were seeing.

NINA JACKEL: It was horrifying and sad, and kind of hard to really accept all at once. There were up to 1,000 dogs trapped in these cages. And this was in the middle of the Boknal dog eating days, so we knew that these dogs were probably all going to die very soon.

NARRATOR: But then, the sounds of footsteps on gravel.

NINA JACKEL: They were two very muscular men in tight shirts. They looked almost like club bouncers or something. 

NARRATOR: Not only are you trespassing but you’re spying on them - and they’re mad.

NINA JACKEL: Any time you're interfering with the way someone makes money, they're not going to like it. 

NARRATOR: How are you going to worm your way out of this one? You’re up a ladder with a camera in your hands. It’s pretty incriminating. Do you smile and explain? 

NINA JACKEL: When we saw them getting closer, we grabbed our gear and started to pack up and get back into the van. Nami got into the driver's seat. I got to the passenger side. Ben was putting the ladder back in the truck and then the men reached us and they tried to grab the ladder away from Ben. They were looking for a physical altercation. It was starting to get pretty scary. And the back door of the van was open because Ben was sliding the ladder into it when they approached us. And so he just jumped into the back and he said: “Drive, Nami drive!” And now we hit the gas and we got away.

NARRATOR: Success! They got away with what they needed - proof that this dog meat farm was breaking animal welfare law - punishable by imprisonment in some cases. But it didn’t come without consequences.

NAMI KIM: Guess what happened the next day? I had a flat tire. Yeah, I know who did it.

NARRATOR: Another warning from the farmers. Was it worth it? Did they get what they needed?

NINA JACKEL: A couple of different feelings. A very sharp sadness from seeing the dogs, also glad that we got the footage that we wanted so that we could show people because we did accomplish that mission. And, I would say, motivated to speak out against this place, to expose these guys, and to do whatever we could to try and shut them down. It was the first footage inside a dog farm run by the Dog Meat Farmers Association.

NARRATOR: That’s the group that lobbies to keep dog meat legal in Korea.

NINA JACKEL: We were able to show it to the media and it was published in the Daily Mail. And I wrote an op-ed in Salon about it. So we did get the word out, and we did bring a lot of attention to the issue. That was really the goal. So I wish that we could have shut that farm down, which hasn't happened yet. But there's a bigger picture in mind. And the more that we expose this, and the more that we speak out about it, the closer we get to getting those laws passed and finally shut down this trade for good. 

NARRATOR: But their mission wasn’t over because, as Nina says, the farms are part of a bigger chain in the dog meat trade. The dogs from the farms are eventually taken to dog-meat auction houses to be sold off to slaughterhouses and butchers. The auction houses are makeshift structures usually built to be inconspicuous. They aren’t officially regulated so owners build them out of the public eye, behind train yards, or on the edges of industrial areas.

NAMI KIM: Basically, they are on agricultural land. Okay, so you can never get the permit to build a proper construction, you know what I mean? So it's all illegal.

NARRATOR: Much like the farms, the dogs at auction houses are kept in conditions well below welfare standards - rows of rusting cages under a tarpaulin with traumatized and sickly dogs inside. While it’s legal to sell dog meat, these auction houses are often thrown up to facilitate the quick sale of dogs, and so they are built without adhering to construction regulations and without obtaining the proper permits from authorities. Another reason they are kept out of public view [is that] no one quite knows how much money these owners make from auctions.

NAMI KIM: They are dog traders who’ve been in the dog industry for long, long years. 

NARRATOR: In the summer of 2020, Nami and Nina heard of a dog-meat auction house operating in Namyangju city, just northeast of Seoul.

NINA JACKEL: We heard that the Nakwon Auction House was selling a lot of dogs. This was also during the Boknal dog eating days in 2020.

NARRATOR: These auctions happen in secret.

NINA JACKEL: They're careful because they understand that there are people like us who want to expose what they're doing and stop it.

NARRATOR: They had to get creative.

NINA JACKEL: As a Westerner and as a woman, there's no way that I could go and walk up and get inside a dog auction. But if you fit in, then they'll let you enter and buy dogs. So I did hire an undercover investigative journalist to try to get inside and document what happens in the auctions. This particular investigator looked like he belonged there, so he was able to get in.

NARRATOR: The aim of this undercover mission was to capture footage of auctioneers breaking animal protection laws and anything dodgy about the building itself. The Nakwon Auction House was the largest operating in the whole country. Shutting it down would be a massive blow to the dog meat trade. 

NINA JACKEL: The bottom line is that these auction houses are operating illegally, and even if it were legal for them to sell dogs, they're violating so many other regulations that they should be shut down. Generally, they're violating health code regulations by not having proper waste management. Things like that. So these places are not operating on the level.

NARRATOR: And that’s the Achilles’ heel in the dog traders armor. If Nina and Nami can’t get them on animal rights abuse, they can get them on an administerial technicality.

NINA JACKEL: We're able to get places shut down because of these infractions that don't necessarily have to do with the legalities of killing dogs but have to do with completely separate issues.

NARRATOR: The undercover investigator headed into an auction - hidden cameras attached to his body.

NINA JACKEL: He witnessed about 200 dogs being auctioned off. They were prodded with metal hooks and treated very roughly, hauled away in tiny cages. These rows and rows of numbered cages and [he had] footage of the auctioneer auctioning them off to the highest bidder. He also had a drone that he flew around the facility and got high shots of all those rows and rows of cages, and all the land around it which was built illegally and was violating a lot of laws.

NARRATOR: Once he got everything they needed, the undercover investigator slipped out unnoticed. That day, he captured footage of 200 dogs crammed into 60 cages - around four dogs the size of a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in a cage the size of a kennel.

NINA JACKEL: So when he brought us the footage, we again reached out to the press and we were able to get People magazine to publish an article about it. The Daily Mail also published an article and a few other publications. So we were able to get some widespread media coverage.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile Nami took the fight directly to Namyangju City Hall.

NINA JACKEL: Nami started protesting outside the auction and she was protesting there with a group of activists every day. And we started an online petition to shut down the auction house. And now we met with the city officials and she presented the petition and she kept pressuring them. That's one thing that Nami does very well, is pressure public officials.

NAMI KIM: When you protest in front of city halls, we have the media and people approaching us. Then the mayor's office will get it right. It's about their city. Look how many people have signed this petition. Okay, the whole world is aware that your city is not doing the job. So, this is how I bring the attention and then we go on with a protest and I keep pressuring them. I get our supporters to make phone calls.

NARRATOR: She also has methods to pressure the dog-meat buyers who turn up at the dog auction houses.

NAMI KIM: Sometimes I hire people to chase the trucks that come out of the auction houses. And then we really chase them on the streets and the highway because we know that these trucks are going to slaughterhouses.

NARRATOR: In the end, the petition received 46,000 signatures and in January of 2021 - thanks to the direct action of Save Korean Dogs and Lady Freethinker - an inspection was ordered by municipal authorities and undertaken by the city mayor. The auction house was shut down on the grounds of ‘construction of an unlawful structure and changing its usage without a permit’ - just as Nina predicted. It was part of a larger ongoing effort by Mayor Cho to end the dog meat trade in Namyangju. The Nakwon Auction House has since been demolished.

NINA JACKEL: It was exhilarating. Nami was protesting and we were protesting online, obviously, because I couldn't be there physically. Just to see that culminate in the actual demolition of this horrible place was an incredible feeling and also it gave me hope that we can do more because there are other auction houses, and there are other dog-meat farms, and there's still a whole industry. This is just one really tiny, tiny, tiny slice of the pie. But just to know that it's possible with just a grassroots effort... We're not a huge organization. And just knowing that this is something that we could accomplish just by having enough motivation to get in there and do it. It's a fantastic feeling.

NARRATOR: And Nami says since she started her organization 10 years ago, she’s seen a real shift in attitudes in Korea.

NAMI KIM: I see the difference. I must say that, yes, there are less and less people eating dog meat these days. The younger generation, their attitude has changed. One young boy, who used to volunteer, said: “You know what? Sometimes my grandfather wants to bring me to dog meat restaurants where I can never say no. But this dog meat restaurant offers another menu so I have a choice. I would rather eat something else.” These younger generations, their attitude towards animals is different compared to the older generation. 

NARRATOR: More and more restaurants selling dog meat are now either closing down or taking dog off their menu.

NAMI KIM: I think the time is just around the corner that people would just say no to it and they’d rather eat something else.

NARRATOR: A 2020 opinion poll showed 84 percent of Koreans say they don’t or won’t eat dogs, and almost 60 percent support a legislative ban on the trade. Until that legislation comes into being, Nami and Nina have a lot more work to do. 

NINA JACKEL: I know that as far as dog meat farms, it's definitely in the hundreds. It could be thousands. I honestly don't know. And there are still a number of dog auctions that are auctioning these dogs off. Until there is a law explicitly banning the dog meat trade, it can't fully go away. So that is the long-term goal. 

NARRATOR: Nina Jackal, and Nami Kim. Oh, and there is an afterword to this mission. I guess you’re probably wondering where the dogs that get saved from the farms and auction houses go? Well, Nami turned her own home into the Save Korean Dogs Foundation sanctuary.

NAMI KIM: These 20 dogs we rescued last year. Most of them, they shiver. They shake in fear of human approach and we give them plenty of time to learn to trust us. It's so rewarding because I'm the only one who knows where they used to be and then they come over here to safety and then get their jabs and vaccines.

NINA JACKEL: They have beds and they have food bowls and water bowls. There's also a large dog park where the dogs get to run around and spend their energy. I believe the park has expanded since I visited, but it was already pretty large. Somehow Nami makes it happen and gives these dogs a safe place to live until they can get adopted. And a lot of them do get adopted and sent to the US and the UK.

NARRATOR: Nami’s Facebook page isn’t just videos of dogs in cages traveling from farms and slaughterhouses. It’s dogs on their way to their forever homes and updates from their new owners about how the dogs are getting on.

NAMI KIM: We get constant encouragement for me to save more. They could have been a piece of meat if not rescued. They offer help and provide a home for these dogs. 

NINA JACKEL: When you're an activist, you need things like that. it can't just be 100 percent cruelty all the time or else you'll go crazy. So you need to have those things that offer hope - for those beautiful, beautiful sanctuaries that are saving animals, that make you feel good.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Nina Jackel is the founder of Lady Freethinker, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing and stopping the suffering of animals and humans.

Nami Kim is the founder and leader of Save Korean Dogs, a non profit group based in Gimpo, South Korea.

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