There is a saying that goes, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
At a glance, South Korea -- with 15 million pet owners -- is a decent place for animals. With a growing trend toward considering pets part of the family, some guardians spare no expense and shop around carefully for the best foods, toys, vets and groomers.
Looking closely, however, there is a dark side. Many animals are abandoned when they are sick, old or no longer considered adorable. Some are abused just for fun, and still others suffer in farms and laboratories.
The number of animals admitted to shelters in Korea has increased each year -- from 102,000 in 2017 to 135,791 in 2019, government data showed. The number of animals used for experiments was 3.71 million last year. The number of police complaints filed in animal abuse cases stood at 914 in 2019, up from 69 in 2010, with few abusers sentenced to prison.
According to London-based World Animal Protection, a nonprofit animal welfare organization that evaluates different countries on the basis of laws, government bodies and support for international animal welfare standards, Korea got a score of D on the group’s Animal Protection Index in 2020. A is the highest score, and G is the lowest.
Animal experts say animals’ lives are still undervalued in Korea, partly because of their low status under the law.
“According to Article 98 of the Civil Code, animals are regarded as objects and the subjects of animal rights are humans. So humans can own, use, trade (animals) or do whatever they want with them -- and it goes to the extent of abusing them,” said Hong Wan-sik, a professor at Konkuk University Law School, author of “Legal Common Sense of Pets” and chair of the Korea Animal Law Research Society.
Although the Animal Protection Act was created to protect animals, they still have no rights under the law and are treated as things that need to be protected and managed, he said.
“This is compared to countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which recognized the special legal status of animals. In those countries, animals are not seen as objects and neither as humans. They are given special status,” Hong said.
In 1990, Germany stipulated in its Civil Code that “Animals are not objects and they are protected by separate laws.” In 1992, Switzerland amended its constitution to recognize that animals are not things, but beings with inherent worth.
“It is necessary to raise the legal status of animals to give people the perception that animals are living creatures,” Hong said.
In 2017, former Rep. Lee Jung-mi of the Justice Party proposed adding a clause to Article 98 of the Civil Code that would have stated “animals are not objects.” But it did not draw much attention in the National Assembly.
Animal protection issues have been put on the back burner in the National Assembly because the pressing agenda for the related standing committee has been livestock, or animals for commercial use, said Rep. Park Hong-geun of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and co-chair of the Animal Welfare National Assembly Forum.
There were 89 amendments to the Animal Protection Act proposed in the 20th National Assembly, which ended in May 2020. But 37 of those proposals expired without ever being discussed due to the indifference of the standing committee.
Although animal protection faces various challenges, the situation is not hopeless. There are lawmakers, civic groups, academics and members of the general public who are constantly raising the issue and pushing for changes.
Since the 21st National Assembly began in June 2020, 42 animal-related bills have been proposed. They address animal protection, zoos and aquariums, wildlife, animals used for experiments and alternatives to animal testing.
Rep. Park said he and his colleagues are also preparing a sweeping revision to the Animal Protection Act together with the government.
“We are working to reflect a large number of pending proposals to the revision,” he said.
Alongside lawmakers, a number of civic groups backed by ordinary citizens are also working on animal welfare and protection.
“I believe the perception of animals has changed a lot compared to 10 years ago,” said Jung Jin-ah, a social change team leader with a local civic group called the Korean Animal Welfare Association.
She pointed to the examples of “improved awareness of stray cats, many ongoing animal rescue projects and revised animal protection laws.”
Supporters of her civic group have increased in number, to 20,000 from around 1,000 in 2010, reflecting the changed public perception of animal welfare and protection.
“Still, it is not yet enough to guarantee the welfare or safety of animals. We will work harder on that.”
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org