In an article released yesterday by The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, a reporter described what he called the "horrors" of a circus show at an arena in Pyongyang.
The performance, which has been infamous among visitors to the North for many years, ‘starred’ a pair of baboons and bears as a main act. The animals, dressed in gaudy costumes, declawed and bound, were directed to perform various stunts; the monkeys rollerbladed about the stage and dunked child-sized basketballs into nets; the bears jumped rope and leap-frogged each other and their trainers.
The circus is and always has been a clear example of animal cruelty, of course. Unsurprisingly, it is also not the only example of animal cruelty to emerge from North Korea. Several years ago, Asia Times reported on the circulation of a film, 'Fighting Animals', which it said was produced by Chosun Science Film Studio. The film was described as a “nature documentary,” a claim that would tend to imply a lack of human intervention. However, contrary to this claim, many scenes in the film do not take place “in the wild”, but rather in cages and poorly lit enclosures, and not one comes across as having occurred spontaneously at all. In fact, it is suspected that much of the footage was shot at Pyongyang Central Zoo.
In fact, Fighting Animals is an extraordinary collection of orchestrated fights between animals, often of different and occasionally endangered types. There is a fight between a lioness and a bear, two dogs of different breeds, a vulture and a fox, and a bear and a wild boar.
Obviously, it also goes without saying that neither the circus featured in today’s news nor ‘Fighting Animals’ is a purely North Korean phenomenon. While most Western audiences have developed a degree of intolerance for the mistreatment of animals over the last 20 to 30 years, these sentiments are not universally held, and conditions for animals that many would likely find offensive are not entirely uncommon in many regions of the world.
Indeed, South Korea has a far from unassailable animal rights record. For instance, in early 2011, following a case of foot and mouth disease discovered in the city of Andong, 1.4 million pigs were buried alive in mass graves in an effort to combat the fast spreading virus. However, the international media reported widely on the slaughter, and animal right groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) began campaigns to protest the brutality. In addition, Korean organizations including Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA) expressed dismay at the inhumane manner of the culling.
That there was such an outcry at home and abroad proves that efforts to improve animal rights in South Korean are building fast. Most recently, the National Assembly passed a number of amendments to the existing Animal Protection Law (APL). A considerable step forward, it vastly expands requirements for the treatment of animals, including holding animal owners to higher standards of care and guaranteeing the safe transportation of livestock, as well as adding increasingly strict regulations to animal experimentation. There is no guarantee that the new rules will be adhered to, but with a robust media and civil society that is willing and able to expose cases of animal cruelty (witness another recent outcry over the dragging of a dog to its death behind a car, the owner of which was crucified by netizens up and down South Korea when a video of the act appeared online) the road ahead is surely bright.
It may be understandably difficult to get excited about animal rights in North Korea when the rights of humans are being so willfully and horrendously abused by the regime all day, every day. It is certainly true to say that the international community is right to place human, not animal, rights concerns at the forefront of its dealings with Pyongyang. But that does not mean we should turn our faces away from the treatment of animals; indeed, it may actually be easier to make progress in this area given its apolitical nature, and we would be wise to make the accumulation of small victories such as this very much part of our strategy.