Heeji Yi has become an unstoppable force in the local animal rights scene. She’s attended protests, done vegan education at Cube of Truth events, and organized Save vigils for animals on their way to slaughter. This year she founded Direct Action Everywhere Seoul.
Her first Save vigil, about a year ago, was for chickens. Since then she’s borne witness for pigs, cows and chickens — both in Gyeonggi Province, where she lives, and in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, where her parents live. It’s easy to find out where animals are being slaughtered and what time trucks are scheduled to arrive, she says, because that information is shared openly on the internet.
Save activists sometimes sing songs while waiting for the trucks to arrive, Heeji says, but when animals are present they’re quiet.
“We only say ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘babies,’ that kind of thing,” Heeji says, adding that they want to give the animals as much love as they can “for that short time.”
Recalling her first fish vigil, she says, “I cried a lot, because I didn’t know. I didn’t have that much connection before. But if I look (more closely at fish), then I can see their suffering. And it’s not — doesn’t have sound, right? For us. We cannot hear them.”
Yet fish suffer even more than other animals slaughtered for food, Heeji says. Instead of avoiding those tanks full of fish and crustaceans in the supermarket, Heeji urges, “Just see the reality. I think we have to be — fiercely be part of the reality.”
Learning about oppression
Growing up, Heeji says she was a “normal Korean kid” — she liked animals and wanted a puppy but hadn’t thought that much about speciesism or animal rights. In 2014 she adopted two cats and became more aware of animal suffering. And in university, having gained more freedom, she began using social media to talk with her peers about social justice issues.
When a woman was murdered in a public bathroom in the Gangnam area of Seoul in 2016, feminism was a hot topic in the news here. Social media discussions about feminism led Heeji to discussions about animal rights.
“I don’t want to get oppressed,” she says. “An animal doesn’t want to get oppressed too. I don’t want to be (an) oppressor.”
That’s when Heeji started taking serious steps toward veganism. She never thought she’d be an activist, she told me in June at a vegan café in Ansan. She thought she’d live a stable life, like her parents. And she’s an introvert, she says. If the friends she had 10 years ago could see her now, she doesn’t think they’d know her.
Leaving comfort zones
Nowadays, Heeji uses social media to share videos of herself and a few like-minded friends barging into restaurants and “disrupting” business by letting customers know that the bodies on their plates used to be living beings — victims of violence who wanted to keep on living. In one video, Heeji walks into a sushi restaurant with a sign that reads, in Korean, “It’s not food, it’s violence.” In another, Heeji’s friend disrupts a barbecue restaurant. In another, a second friend disrupts a restaurant that serves nonvegan soups and stews. The owners and staff yell at them to leave.
And they do, but not before making their point.
“It’s not food, it’s violence” is a DxE slogan, and the US parent group has carried out restaurant disruptions and made surprise appearances at various public events for a few years now. But here, the phenomenon is almost unheard of. Heeji estimates that DxE Seoul has about 20 or 30 supporters, but acknowledges that they’re mostly her friends and their friends.
While she doesn’t think every person should be an activist, she says we all need to get out of our comfort zones.
“Because I’m out of my comfort zone,” Heeji says.
But she believes activism has improved her life too. “If I am in my comfort zone I only feel powerless,” she says. “I only feel sadness. I only feel disconnection from animals.”
Choosing where to focus
Heeji is in her late 20s — she asked me not to give the exact number — but looks younger. This matters during disruptions and vigils, she says, because the police, slaughterhouse workers and restaurant staff look down on the activists and feel free to order them around in banmal (informal Korean).
An English education major and former English teacher, Heeji says she liked her old job teaching kids at a private academy, but quit working about a year ago to focus on activism. “If I work then I cannot focus on (the) animal rights movement but … I’m disturbed by the realities and I know already what’s happening.”
And as an activist, she says, “I cannot focus on work too. I couldn’t do it.”
Oddly, Heeji’s activism has had a positive impact on her family relationships, even though her parents are still not interested in going vegan and she thinks they’d like her to be more financially stable. That’s because they respect her commitment.
“Because they see my passion, they see my will, they see my vision,” she says. “I always talk about animals. They know that social movement … participating more actively makes me … how can I say … fulfilled? They see me changed. Before movement and after movement.”
Heeji shares her life with a dog and three cats and she wants to see Korea’s dog meat industry shut down, along with all other animal slaughter industries. “I know they’re all (the) same,” she says, but she also recognizes that people feel more connected to dogs, so she understands why dog meat is a major issue in Korea.
“But for me, the reason why I’m not focusing on dogs is I have (that) connection,” she says. “I cannot ignore pigs, cows, chickens.”
Not just a cute duckling
I spoke with Heeji about a week after she returned from Berkeley, California, where she spent two weeks in June learning about animal activism and nonviolent direct action. She was one of three Korean activists who attended the 2019 Animal Liberation Conference organized by DxE, and one of about 600 animal advocates who took part in a mass open rescue at a duck slaughterhouse.
The duckling tattoo on her forearm is a reminder of the 32 birds who were saved that day, and all the others who weren’t.
That day Heeji chose to stay outside the slaughterhouse gates rather than risk arrest, because she didn’t want to be banned from the US and prevented from attending future conferences. But other DxE activists stormed the building, stopped the slaughter line, chained themselves to the equipment, and rescued as many ducklings as they could.
Those outside the gates, including Heeji, showed their support by singing songs or just being there.
The surviving birds live at an undisclosed location where they are safe from slaughter. One US activist, Thomas Chiang, was almost killed after he chained himself to the slaughter machinery by the neck and a worker turned it on.
Heeji got to know Thomas Chiang at the conference and heard him address a group of activists after his injury. Other activists, she says, might have decided to step away from direct action after such a terrifying experience.
“But actually Thomas said: ‘Get involved. Please get involved in this movement.’”
DxE a cult?
I asked Heeji about a few of the controversies going on in the animal rights community, including criticism leveled at DxE by US activist, author and feminist scholar Carol J. Adams, long considered one of the movement’s leaders. Adams has publicly denounced DxE as a “cult” and refuses to speak at any event where DxE representatives will also be present. In a statement that’s been widely shared on social media, Adams says DxE activists were sexually assaulted by others within the group and the leadership mishandled the situation. She also claims black women who joined DxE were silenced by its leadership.
While Heeji can’t answer to the specific allegations, she says they don’t reflect her experiences with the group. She never witnessed any cultlike behavior at the Berkeley conference, she says, and the DxE activists she got to know were passionate about human social justice issues, including racism and sexism, in addition to animal rights.
Heeji hopes DxE Seoul will have its own animal rights center someday, similar to the one she visited in Berkeley, and is working actively to make it happen. She’s looked at prospective sites, including the ERICA campus of Hanyang University in Ansan, where she thinks the movement could gain a foothold. She envisions a space where activists share ideas, solve problems and form strong communities.
Are disruptions effective?
Predictably, Heeji’s actions have drawn mixed responses. When we spoke, she said DxE Seoul had done interviews with about 10 local media organizations and would soon be featured on a Korean TV program.
But in the Facebook group Vegan Korea, some commenters said disruptions were “too aggressive” and “counterproductive” and accused Heeji and her friends of giving vegans “a bad name.” Heeji responded by sharing her own experiences as well as a video of DxE leader Wayne Hsiung explaining the rationale behind confrontational tactics, pointing to examples from the history of different social movements.
On the other hand, there were supportive comments in the Facebook group too. One commenter said the criticisms of Heeji’s posts made her ill. She likened Heeji’s direct action tactics to the mass civil disobedience that took place in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2016 and 2017 to protect indigenous communities’ water supplies by physically obstructing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
And Jason Fonger, who lives in Thailand and coordinates Anonymous for the Voiceless chapters throughout Asia, had this to say:
“It gives me pride in the global vegan movement to see the recent disruption videos posted. To those unsure of the necessity and positive effects of such actions, I encourage you to keep thinking with an open mind. Kudos to those who are taking the initiative to get DxE happening in Korea. I wish you great success and I am sure you will continuously refine and seek to improve disruption tactics.”