Cube of Truth: Vegan activism in Seoul

The first time I took the subway to Myeong-dong, the busy shopping area in downtown Seoul, to observe a Cube of Truth event, I had been following the group’s activities on social media for some time.

The activists were representing Anonymous for the Voiceless, AV for short. According to its international website, “Anonymous for the Voiceless is a street activist organization dedicated to total animal liberation. We expose to the public the animal exploitation that is intentionally hidden from them.”

The website goes on to say that AV was established in April 2016; that its first Cube of Truth event was in Melbourne, Australia; and that it holds an abolitionist stance on animal liberation. That means it’s not fighting for bigger cages or “humane” slaughter methods — it wants the whole world to go vegan.

There are some rules for cube events: The activists holding the laptops must act “robotic,” staring straight ahead and extending the laptops in front of them in a mechanical way. Unaccompanied children aren’t allowed to watch the videos. If a child approaches, outreach volunteers won’t let them stay without permission from a parent or guardian.

Positive engagement

It was International Cube Day, Nov. 3. Judging from pictures I’d seen in international media, the turnout of activists was small compared with cube events in some other cities. Even so, I was impressed.

I counted eight people in the “cube” — a formation of masked activists facing all four directions with neutral expressions, inviting onlookers to approach.

The activists carried laptops or “Truth” signs. The signs were in English and Korean.

On the laptops was horrible graphic footage: dead pigs, pigs in prison, a slaughtered cow with her throat cut, still struggling as she bled out. Pigs being killed in gas chambers, piglets with a mother who seemed to be dead or dying. Chickens in cages.

A few of the images were captioned — the name Sainsbury’s, a grocery store chain in the UK, appeared in one of the captions. One of the hellholes in the footage had apparently won an award for “animal welfare.”

The crowd seemed to be mostly foreigners, and when I listened I heard a lot of English although there was some Korean too.

The Seoul activists

I recognized one of the activists, Mesfin Hailemariam from Ethiopia — I’d talked with him on social media and also at one of the vegan fairs in Seoul. He was talking with a group of foreigners about veganism and I wanted to listen in, but I avoided getting too close because I didn’t want to interfere.

Another outreach volunteer also spoke English. I only heard a fragment of the conversation, something about how old cows are when they’re slaughtered. I think that must have been Alysia Kim — it sounds like her voice on the audio file. I counted five outreach volunteers that day and a few more people on the sidelines with Guy Fawkes masks, who seemed to be cube activists on standby.

After observing the activists for a while and listening in on a few of their conversations, I approached an outreach volunteer. The first person who looked approachable was Alysia Kim from the US.

I told her about my blogging project and she asked me why I was interested in veganism. I explained that I didn’t eat animal products or wear them. “Awesome,” she repeated several times.

“The only reason I can’t say I have a completely vegan household is that my cats are not on vegan food,” I said, and she was very understanding.

“That’s hard,” she said. “It’s hard for cats especially to go vegan, they’re not … they’re obligate carnivores.”

I started to explain that that wasn’t the reason my cats weren’t on vegan food, that there were specific risk factors I was concerned about.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

I asked Alysia how long she’d been involved with the Cube of Truth and she told me it was her first cube event here in Seoul. “My first cube internationally ever,” she said.

She’d only been involved with AV Seoul for a few months, she said, since July. She’d been vegan for about two years and she said she was kind of nervous about outreach, about talking to people. She figured this was the least she could do.

Alysia had a friendly, enthusiastic personality. Despite what she told me, she didn’t seem at all nervous about talking to people. I said the event seemed to have drawn a good turnout of activists.

“Yeah, it’s International Cube Day,” she said. “So there’s over 500 cubes happening all over the world on Nov. 3, today.” She added that it was also the group’s 25th cube event and that it was “super exciting.”

I asked her if AV’s outreach volunteers mainly targeted foreigners.

“It’s about half-half,” she said. “It’s whoever’s here on a particular night. And we have a lot of Korean members as well. It’s pretty cool because it’s like half-half,” and I said that was amazing.

I explained that my blog still needed a lot of work and I couldn’t promise to get it out ASAP. I might have to come back, I said.

“Sure,” Alysia said. “We’re here every two weeks.”

My second visit

I went back two weeks later, on Nov. 17. This time I spoke with one of the main organizers, Allécia van Dyk from South Africa. I asked her how long she’d been involved with the organization and she said since June.

I asked her why she chose to be involved in this form of activism instead of just casually talking to people about veganism. Why was it important to her to reach out to people in such an active way?

In her experience, she said, people don’t understand the reality of how animals end up on their plates. But when they see the footage, they make the connection.

“We also talk to them,” Allécia said. “They see the footage. They see what’s going on. They see the truth and where their food comes from.”

Then the outreach volunteers tell them about veganism, ask if they’ve heard of it and find out what’s holding them back.

“We try to … ask questions, instead of like just fact-bombarding them,” she said, “so that they can sort of go to the realization themselves and make the connection and make the compassionate choice.”

Dinner at Vegetus

Two more weeks passed. On Dec. 1, I joined the AV activists for dinner at Vegetus, a vegan restaurant in the Haebangchon area of Seoul. It was a huge group — my social media timeline suggests there were only 10 people at the dinner, but it seemed like 20 or more. I didn’t take an active part in the conversation, which jumped around from Dr. Michael Greger’s plant-based nutrition videos to vegan restaurants in other world cities to human social justice issues.

That day the group ordered vegan cake to celebrate two special occasions: the one-year anniversary of AV Seoul and the upcoming birthday of one of its most active members, Mesfin. Mesfin was one of AV Seoul’s founders, having previously promoted veganism by distributing leaflets in the city’s busy Hongdae area. He talked a bit about his experience of turning vegan many years earlier and about AV Seoul’s history — which, I learned to my surprise, had even included gatherings hosted by an ambassador’s wife.

Most of the people who approach the AV activists “don’t like to abuse animals,” Mesfin said that night when I asked him to explain the thinking behind their outreach method. They wouldn’t abuse animals if they knew more, he said, but they don’t know the industry’s secrets.

Activists report positive experiences overall, he said, though every conversation is different and there are a variety of responses. Mesfin also told me he didn’t consider an AV event a “protest.” Instead it’s a public display, he explained, “more like busking.”

The activists don’t shout, he said, but wait for people to come to them. Only when people have been standing there for a few seconds do the outreach volunteers start a conversation. Since the onlookers are “already standing and watching,” Mesfin said, they may be more receptive to a vegan message than the general population.

In Seoul, he said, people tend not to be confrontational, though “sometimes you can get into debates.”

I raised the question of whether the events scared people. This question stemmed from a recent online discussion where someone had questioned the Guy Fawkes masks.

Mesfin said he didn’t consider that objection reasonable. Maybe it would be scary if the masked activists were in an alleyway, he said, but not in the middle of Seoul with people around.

Reflections of a would-be activist

In all my interviews with AV activists, I found it very hard to restrain myself — hard to be a detached observer. The subject brought back my own experiences in the 1990s when I took part in demonstrations against fur, against circuses, against vivisection … all things that would seem easier to “sell” to the public but that too often invited rude responses and jeers from people who didn’t seem to want to listen.

AV Seoul seemed to be experiencing a lot more success.

At that initial visit I’d asked Alysia if she thought she was really getting to people and she’d said yes.

Since turning vegan, she said on International Cube Day, family members and friends had been “sidestepping away,” but her experience of showing graphic footage to strangers was very different.

“It’s hard to talk to people but when you show the videos, everyone reacts. I really kind of like wonder — man, do people care about animal issues? Because no one seems to, but then people do care. That’s the thing I learned about doing the cube and being behind the mask is that people react. People are really compassionate, and they do care, just … they just feel like it’s too hard to give up meat. You know what I mean?”

Other people, she acknowledged, aren’t ready to listen.

“(They) either just walk away or they just kind of nod and say thank you,” she said. They aren’t “outwardly rude.”

Allécia also reported positive interaction, on the whole.

“We do get quite a lot of people watching,” she said during our interview in November. “Some like Koreans are a bit more shy and don’t always want to talk but if they do talk they usually — the thing I hear actually most is just ‘thank you.’ They just say, ‘Thank you. I didn’t know.’ So I think it really is effective in reaching people.”

I asked her what she would say to critics who might say, “It’s not your country. You don’t have the right to protest in someone else’s country.” (I was recalling a specific internet discussion when I asked that.)

“Thankfully, I’ve never heard that before,” she said with a laugh. I told her about the internet discussion, which she agreed was “horrible.”

“If someone said that to me, firstly, we’re not protesting. We’re like simply showing the truth. And we’re not protesting what’s happening in Korea. We’re showing people the truth of what’s happening in the world, not only Korea. This is not only about animals in Korea, this is about animals all over the world. This is applicable worldwide, not only Korea.”

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