Vegan activists in Guy Fawkes masks display footage on laptops in Myeong-dong, Seoul, in this slightly blurry filtered image.

The first time I observed a Cube of Truth event in Myeong-dong, the busy shopping area in downtown Seoul, I’d followed the group’s activities on social media for some time. The activists were representing Anonymous for the Voiceless, and on Nov. 3, 2018, they were celebrating International Cube Day.

“Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV) is a not-for-profit animal rights organisation specialising in using conversation and standard practice footage to edify the public about animal exploitation,” the international website says. “Initially founded in Melbourne, Australia, we are now a global community of like-minded people using our voices for justice for our fellow earthlings. With an abolitionist stance against all forms of non-human animal exploitation, we hold street activism events worldwide to edify the public towards supporting animal rights, living vegan and speaking up for the animals.”

Looking around

Judging from pictures I’d seen in international media, the activist turnout was smaller than at cube events in some other cities. Even so, I was impressed. I counted eight people in the “cube” — masked activists facing all four directions with neutral expressions, alternately holding laptops or signs bearing the word “Truth.” The signs were in English and Korean. 

The laptops played gruesome footage showing dead pigs and imprisoned pigs. A 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 company that ran one of these hellholes, a supplier to the Sainsbury’s grocery store chain in Britain, had apparently won an award for “animal welfare.” 

There were strict rules for cube events. The activists holding the laptops were instructed to act “robotic,” staring straight ahead and extending the laptops in front of them in a mechanical way. Unaccompanied children weren’t allowed to watch. If a child approached, outreach volunteers wouldn’t let them stay without permission from a parent or guardian.

That evening the crowd seemed to be mostly foreigners, and when I listened I heard a lot of English.

Approaching an activist

I recognized one of the activists, Mesfin from Ethiopia. We’d talked before on social media and at one of the vegan fairs in Seoul. He was talking about veganism with a group of foreigners, and I wanted to listen in, but I avoided getting too close.

Another outreach volunteer also spoke English. I only heard a fragment of the conversation, something about how old cows were when they were slaughtered. I counted five outreach volunteers that day and a few more people on the sidelines with Guy Fawkes masks, who seemed to be 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 a U.S. national named Alysia.

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.”

My cats ate nonvegan food because of specific health concerns, I struggled to explain. 

“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 the Seoul chapter for a few months, she said, since July. She’d been vegan for about two years and said she was kind of nervous about outreach, about talking to people. But she figured it was the least she could do.

Alysia had a friendly, enthusiastic personality. Despite what she told me, she didn’t seem at all nervous 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. 

I asked her if she and the other 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.” 

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

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

Behind the mask

Before I left, I asked Alysia if she thought she was really getting to people. I wasn’t just a detached observer. The event brought back memories of the 1990s, when I took part in demonstrations against fur, circuses, vivisection, and other speciesist practices in Canada and the United States. In those days, we often got rude responses and jeers from people who didn’t want to listen.

The Seoul chapter of Anonymous for the Voiceless seemed to be experiencing a lot more success.

“It’s hard to talk to people but when you show the videos, everyone reacts,” Alysia said. “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 said, weren’t ready to listen and would just walk away. 

“Or they just kind of nod and say thank you.” 

A second visit

I went back two weeks later. This time I spoke with one of the organizers, Allécia 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’d chosen this form of activism instead of just casually talking to people about veganism in everyday life. Why was it important to her to reach out to people in such an active way?

In her experience, she said, people didn’t understand the reality of how animals ended up on their plates. But when they saw the footage, they made the connection.

“They see the footage,” she said. “They see what’s going on. They see the truth and where their food comes from.”

Then the outreach volunteers would tell them about veganism, ask if they’d heard of it and find out what was 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.”

Like Alysia, Allécia reported positive interactions on the whole.

“We do get quite a lot of people watching,” she said. “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 how she’d answer critics who might say, “It’s not your country. You don’t have the right to protest in someone else’s country.” 

“Thankfully, I’ve never heard that before,” she said with a laugh. I mentioned an internet discussion years earlier where people had left comments to that effect.

“Well, if someone said that to me, it’s, firstly, we’re not protesting,” Allécia said. “We’re just, 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, like, only about animals in Korea. This is about animals all over the world. This is applicable worldwide, not only Korea.”

Dinner with the activists

Two more weeks passed. On Dec. 1, I joined the activists for dinner at a vegan restaurant in Haebangchon, an area of Seoul with a high expat population. It was a huge group — one social media post indicated there were only 10 people there, but it seemed like 20 or more, mostly non-Koreans. The conversation jumped around from Dr. Michael Greger’s plant-based nutrition videos to vegan restaurants in other world cities to human social justice issues.

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

When I asked Mesfin about the group’s outreach method, he said most of the people who approached cubes were against animal abuse and wouldn’t abuse animals if they knew more. But they didn’t know the industry’s secrets, he said.

Activists reported positive experiences overall, he continued, though every conversation was different. Like Allécia, Mesfin didn’t consider a cube event a protest. It was a public display, he said, “more like busking.”

The activists didn’t shout, he said, but waited for people to come to them. Only after a few seconds would the outreach volunteers start a conversation about the footage. Since the onlookers were already standing and watching, Mesfin said, it was possible they were more receptive to a vegan message than the general population.

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

I raised the question of whether the events scared people. In a recent online discussion, someone had taken issue with 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 in 2024

The Seoul chapter of Anonymous for the Voiceless closed a few years ago when the group needed a coordinator and no one stepped up. From what I gather, multiple factors contributed to the breakdown of the group. There was an ugly social media drama in 2019 involving accusations of racism by one of the activists against two others. COVID restrictions put the brakes on cube events for a while after that, and many of the foreign activists eventually left Korea.

Regarding the racism discussion, I didn’t personally witness the exchange and eyewitness accounts differed dramatically. There’s no audio or video file to refer to, so it’s impossible for me to know whether someone really said something offensive or if it was a misunderstanding. I tried reaching out to people, but no one seemed interested in rehashing the dispute. 

Of course setbacks like this happen in all movements, not just animal advocacy. I’m sure the activists who took part in the cube events in 2018 are spreading veganism in their own ways wherever they happen to be in the world. When I research the third installment in my upcoming e-book series, I hope to make contact with a few Korean activists and get an update on the country’s animal rights scene. 

Personally, I’ve always shied away from activism in Korea because I never felt I could be effective here. To get serious about activism, wouldn’t I have to put down roots and be a real community member? Could I really push for social change as a foreigner in a culture so far removed from my own? Three years after the Seoul chapter of Anonymous for the Voiceless officially dissolved, Allécia’s words continue to resonate. 

“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, like, only about animals in Korea. This is about animals all over the world.”

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