South Korean campaigners press for harsher punishments against cruelty as eating of dog meat remains widespread.
Animal activists face uphill battle in land of dog eaters
SEOUL // Amid the frenzied cries of a group of protesters campaigning against the South Korean government's budget in the centre of the capital this week, a smaller group of people held a quieter demonstration nearby.
Wearing paper bags over their faces emblazoned with blurry photographs of a cat, they held up banners calling for harsher punishment for those who mistreat animals.
Minnie Seo, a patent lawyer and one of the protesters, said: "In Korea, the animal protection laws are very weak. If someone abuses animals, it's very hard to get them arrested, and if they are arrested the punishment is so weak.
"The Korean animal protection laws just think the animal is property, like furniture or a computer. It's similar to traffic violations."
At the demonstration, the attention of the assembled press photographers was focused on the nearby budget rally, illustrating the mountain that animal welfare campaigners have to climb in a country known for including dog meat on the menu.
Nevertheless, South Korea has spawned several home-grown animal protection societies and campaigners who insist there is cause for optimism.
Misuk Im, the manager of Korea Animal Rights Advocates, said: "The environment and the society are changing. Starting with young people, public perception and attitudes towards eating dogs have been changing gradually. The demand for dog meat has decreased a lot."
The eating of dogs in South Korea, where as many as two million are said to be consumed annually, remains the most controversial, but not the only issue of concern.
Dog meat is believed by many Koreans to give strength and improve virility. While it is officially banned, more than 500 restaurants in the capital alone are believed to serve dishes containing dog.
The killing and eating of dogs has technically been illegal since Korea introduced its principal animal protection legislation in 1991, and animal protection groups have opposed proposals to legalise the trade. Officials say this would allow better regulation and improve welfare, but campaigners insist cruelty would continue.
Activists report widespread abuse, with animals forced to live in tiny cages amid their own faeces, before they are beaten to death or hanged.
However, the controversy raises the wider issue of what some see as traditional behaviour in a society transformed in recent decades by furious economic growth. Advocates of the trade insist eating dogs is a Korean tradition and should continue.
Public opinion could be on their side. A recent survey showed that while slightly less than a third of people have eaten dog meat, as few as one in 10 want to stop its consumption.
Yet campaigners insist eating dogs is not a tradition but something forced on a population facing food shortages during the Second World War and after the Korean War.
Han Sungmi, a researcher at Seoul National University who campaigns for animal rights, said: "Eating dogs is not the Korean way. It's only because our ancestors ate dogs because they had nothing to eat. They couldn't eat beef or pork or anything. It's not culture. It's a bad habit," said
There are signs the authorities are giving broader animal issues a higher priority. In October, the government sponsored its second animal welfare conference, five months after the ministry of food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries set up a hotline to put people in touch with those working locally on the issue.
Meanwhile, China is considering introducing its first animal welfare legislation, two decades after its neighbour, a delay perhaps mirroring the differences in the countries' economic development.
The gradual change of attitudes in South Korea was illustrated by the concerns over dogs abandoned when their owners fled the island of Yeonpyeong after the recent artillery fire from North Korea. More than 10,000 signed a petition calling on the government to act and the group Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth sent people to the island to help the animals.
Ms Misuk said: "There has been a change without any doubt and we all recognise animals as well as humans have rights.
"Existing animal protection laws are not enough - the person who abuses or kills animals is only fined. However, fortunately, revisions of the law are in progress. We will not stop voicing out until things go right."