S Korea activists use G20 to highlight bear farms

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

Media caption, A typical bear farm, with more than 300 animals kept in cages

South Korea gets to parade its credentials as an emerging world power this week with its hosting of the G20 summit meeting in Seoul.

But animal rights campaigners hope to use the occasion to highlight something that they say undermines the country's modern image - the farming of bears for their bile.

Asiatic black bears, native to much of Asia, are sometimes called moon bears because of the crescent shaped markings on their chests.

They find themselves in cages because of the demand for their gall bladders, the bile from which is thought to alleviate a range of illnesses.

Used in traditional Chinese medicine, the bile is an expensive commodity and from the 1980s onwards farming became a cheaper and easier way to harvest it than the hunting of wild bears.

Farmers I have spoken to here in Korea say all farmed bears are now bred in captivity and are well looked after.

But animal rights campaigners disagree, saying that as South Korea prepares to host the G20 summit its status as one of very few countries to allow the practice is becoming a national embarrassment.

"Keeping bears in cages gives them a large amount of stress because they are wild animals by nature," Kim Mi-young, an activist at Green Korea United, tells me.

"There is an enormous amount of suffering. You can see them showing signs of mental stress, with repetitive movements. The cramped conditions make them aggressive and they fight each other and get injured."

Lax enforcement

Moon bears are on the endangered species list, international trade is banned and other major centres for the industry are being forced to act.

Vietnam, for example, has banned it - although enforcement is still lax - and China has introduced some monitoring of its bear farms.

Image caption, Campaigners have taken their protest to the streets of Seoul

But South Korea continues to allow farming for the domestic market and has even relaxed certain restrictions in recent years.

The practice of extracting bile using syringes or catheters from live, sedated bears has been banned.

But secretly filmed footage broadcast recently by one of South Korea's leading broadcasters shows that it continues, at least to some extent.

Connecting the issue of bear farming to Korea's international image during the G20 is not the first time campaigners have exploited the uncomfortable tension between traditional and modern Korea.

The trade in dog meat made unfavourable global headlines during this country's hosting of the Olympics and the World Cup.

For the South Korean government, its hosting of the G20 summit is a highly significant moment, the crowning glory of this country's transition from poverty to prosperity.

And it is uneasy about the moon-bear issue.

"Our national image is being harmed and we are trying to resolve the situation," Choi Jong-won, an official at the environment ministry, tells me.

"But the bears are private property and it is difficult to abolish the practice overnight."

Campaigners, though, sense an opportunity.

They hope to use the current international attention to persuade the government to find the millions of dollars needed to compensate farmers for the closure of their farms.

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