A warning sign reads, "Disruptive behavior will not be tolerated," against a restaurant background.

Looking back on my 2019 conversation with Heeji Yi, maybe I was too optimistic. The Korean animal rights activist was in her late 20s at the time and we met up at a café in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, just outside Seoul, to talk about her activism.

Heeji had plunged into animal activism headfirst and was doing all the things I wished I could do — leading confrontational protests, doing vegan education at Cube of Truth events, organizing Animal Save vigils for animals on their way to slaughter. In 2019 she founded Direct Action Everywhere Seoul.

Her first slaughterhouse vigil, about a year earlier, was for chickens. Slaughterhouse vigils are part of an international movement founded by Canadian Anita Krajnc, who has argued that it’s important to bear witness even if it’s not within the activists’ power to stop the slaughter. 

Heeji had since borne witness for pigs, cows and other chickens — both in Gyeonggi Province, where she lived, and in Chungju, North Chungcheong Province, where her parents lived. It was easy to find out where animals were being slaughtered and what time trucks were scheduled to arrive, she said, because that information was shared openly on the internet.  

Heeji and her fellow Save activists sometimes sang songs while waiting for the trucks to arrive, but when animals were present they would stay quiet.

“We only say ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘babies,’ that kind of thing,” she said, adding that they wanted to give the animals as much love as they could for “that short time.”

Recalling her first fish vigil, she said, “I cried a lot, because I didn’t know.”

Before the event, she explained, she hadn’t felt a strong connection to fishes. But after she started to look more closely, she became aware of their suffering. 

Fishes didn’t make sounds that humans were capable of hearing, Heeji pointed out, but they suffered even more than other animals slaughtered for food. I mentioned how I always tried to avoid looking at those tanks full of sea creatures in the supermarkets and outside restaurants. 

Instead of avoiding them, she advised me, “Just see the reality. I think we have to be — fiercely be part of the reality.” 

Learning about oppression

Growing up, Heeji said 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. 

She didn’t want to be oppressed and neither did animals, she said. Realizing she didn’t want to be an oppressor, she started taking serious steps toward veganism. 

She never thought she’d be an activist, she said. She thought she’d live a stable life like her parents. She also told me she was an introvert. If the friends she spent time with 10 years earlier could see her, she didn’t think they’d know her anymore.

Comfort zones

When we spoke in 2019, Heeji regularly used 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 walked into a sushi restaurant with a sign saying, in Korean, “It’s not food, it’s violence.” In another, Heeji’s friend disrupted a barbecue restaurant. In another, a second friend disrupted a restaurant that served nonvegan soups and stews. 

The owners and staff yelled at them to leave, and they did. But not before making their point. 

It was the U.S. parent group Direct Action Everywhere that popularized the slogan “It’s not food, it’s violence.” Restaurant disruptions in the U.S. had inspired Heeji and her friends. While she didn’t think every person should be an activist, she said we all needed to get out of our comfort zones. 

Heeji was out of her comfort zone, she told me that day at the café, but activism had improved her life too. In her comfort zone, she felt powerless. 

“I only feel sadness,” she said of remaining in her comfort zone. “I only feel disconnection from animals.” 

Choosing where to focus

An English education major and former English teacher, Heeji said she liked her old job teaching kids at a private academy, but she’d quit about a year earlier to focus on activism. The realities were too disturbing, she said, and she couldn’t focus on two things at once.

I was surprised to hear that Heeji’s activism had affected her family relationships in a positive way — even though her parents still weren’t interested in going vegan, and even though she thought they’d like her to be more financially stable. 

They respected her commitment, she said.

“Because they see my passion, they see my will, they see my vision,” she said. “I always talk about animals.”

They could see that activism had changed her for the better and given her a sense of fulfillment, she said.  

Heeji shared her life with a dog and three cats, and she said she wanted to see Korea’s dog meat industry shut down along with all other animal slaughter industries. She knew all animals were the same, she said, but she also understood that people felt closer to dogs and that made dog meat a major issue in Korea. 

She felt that same sense of connection with other animals, she said, not just with dogs. That was why she’d chosen not to focus on dogs. 

“I cannot ignore pigs, cows, chickens,” she said.

We talked about Korean notions of politeness and how police officers and slaughterhouse workers felt they could talk down to Heeji and her friends because they were younger. We talked about the intimidation and threats they’d faced during a restaurant disruption. Still, she was undeterred, saying she was doing what she had to do.

Duckling tattoo

At the time of our interview, Heeji had recently returned from the 2019 Animal Liberation Conference in Berkeley, California, organized by the U.S. leaders of Direct Action Everywhere. Heeji was one of three Korean activists at the conference, and one of about 600 animal advocates who took part in a mass open rescue at a duck slaughterhouse. She showed me a duckling tattoo on her forearm — a reminder of the 32 birds who were saved that day, and all the others who weren’t.  

Heeji chose to stay outside the slaughterhouse gates rather than risk arrest in California because she didn’t want to be banned from the U.S. and prevented from attending future conferences. But other activists stormed the building, stopped the slaughter line, chained themselves to the equipment and rescued as many ducklings as they could. 

Those who stood outside showed their support by singing songs or just by being there. Another activist at the protest was almost killed after he chained himself to the slaughter machinery by the neck and a worker turned it on. Heeji spoke with admiration of that man’s determination to continue his activism.

Cultish behavior? 

The groups we talked about were and are controversial even within animal rights circles. Feminist scholar Carol J. Adams, a respected leader of the U.S. animal rights movement and a writer whose work influenced my thinking in the 1990s when I first started learning about these issues, issued a statement in 2018 publicly denouncing Direct Action Everywhere as a cult and refusing to speak at any event where its representatives would also be present. She accused the leadership of taking advantage of young, vulnerable activists and urged the group’s members to pursue activism on their own. Open rescue wasn’t something the group or its leaders had invented, she said, nor had they invented any other activist tactic.

Heeji couldn’t answer to the specific allegations from Carol Adams. She said, however, that she’d had only positive experiences with the group and hadn’t witnessed any cultlike behavior in Berkeley. The activists she got to know there were passionate about human social justice issues, including racism and sexism, in addition to animal rights, she added. We talked about diversity in the U.S. animal rights movement, and Heeji seemed to share my impression that Direct Action Everywhere had made better progress than most.

When we talked in 2019, Heeji had big plans for Direct Action Everywhere Seoul. She said she hoped it would have its own animal rights center someday, similar to one she’d visited in Berkeley, and she was working to make that happen. She’d looked at prospective sites, including a university campus where she thought the movement could gain a foothold. She envisioned a space where activists could share ideas, solve problems and form strong communities.

2024

In 2024, Heeji told me she’d quit activism two years earlier. I’m not sure why. I remember what she told me in 2019 — that Direct Action Everywhere Seoul had 20 or 30 supporters, and most were her friends and their friends. I can’t help wondering how the group has held together without her and whether disruptions and vigils are still going on in Korea. And I can’t help feeling sad, even though I’m not an activist myself and have no right to say anything. 

Maybe Heeji tried to do too much too fast? Maybe things could have been different if only she’d paced herself and been more realistic about practical matters like earning a living? Maybe there’s something to Carol Adams’ critique?

I don’t know, but I want to thank Heeji for her activism. And I hope I can challenge myself to get out there and be disruptive too.

Fishes vs. fish

In an earlier iteration of this blog post, I used “fish” as the plural of “fish.” “Fishes” is less common, but it isn’t wrong, and after giving it a lot more thought I’ve decided to use it here.

I may not be ready to adopt all of Joan Dunayer’s style guidelines yet, but I’m moving in that direction.

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