South Korea has a dismal reputation on animal rights. Filthy, unregulated farms where dogs are slaughtered for their meat and black bears are tapped alive for their bile are harrowing yet widely tolerated.

So it is curious that Seoul’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon, is jeopardizing a blue-riband fashion show by demanding that Italian luxury fashion house Fendi not parade models in furs. Fur is back with a vengeance on Milanese catwalks and no-one expected a rebellion in Seoul.

But the mayor’s office says it has received complaints from animal rights groups and that the Fendi show has attracted “negative publicity” on the internet. So with little more than two weeks to go before the event, which has been planned for months, it has told Fendi to remove the furs – though city officials say talks are still going on.

Fendi’s fashion show is due to be the inaugural event at Seoul’s most dramatic new venue, a floating island in the middle of the river Han that bisects the city. Ambitious mayor Oh, who is an outside tip to be the next president, had wanted to hold last year’s G20 summit on the island but more sober heads prevailed, perhaps concerned for the safety of world leaders. Now it is Fendi that is getting that sinking feeling.

Seoul city officials told reporters they had no experience of haute couture so didn’t know how these things worked – and that the protests had taken them by surprise.

To some extent, it is true that Koreans, especially younger ones, are getting more vocal about animal welfare. Earlier this year, many were distraught to hear of truckloads of squealing pigs being buried alive in an attempt to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease.

But some of the more acerbic comments from Korean bloggers reveal why mayor Oh might be especially sensitive to the Fendi show. Some bloggers, such as the well-informed and intriguingly named “pudmaker”, point out that Oh has been a director of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movements, a non-profit umbrella group overseeing several green organisations. To host a show heavy on fur would suggest hypocrisy from a potential presidential hopeful.

Although the current president, Lee Myung-bak, is also a former mayor of Seoul, it is far from clear that Oh could follow in his footsteps. He currently only gets about 6 or 7 per cent support in polls. Front-runner Park Geun-hye garners about 30 per cent. But there’s a long way to go before the election at the end of next year.

More intriguingly, several bloggers attack Oh not because of the fur but because he plans to inaugurate a public building with a marketing exercise by a luxury brand, of interest only to the rich.

South Korea’s ruling party is on a massive PR drive at the moment to convince a doubtful public that it is not simply pandering to big business and really does care about the little guy. If this means Oh has to tell Fendi who is boss after some bad press, then – maybe – so be it.

Related reading:
South Korea file, beyondbrics

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