South Korea to grant animals legal status

Learn about how South Korea is changing the way it treats animals in response to growing pro-animal sentiment.

(Karakoram | Dreamstime)
(Karakoram | Dreamstime)

South Korea is poised as the next country in the world to grant animals legal status so that their rights and welfare can be better protected. This happens as candidates for president in the 2022 elections also talk about their pro-animal agendas to win pet owners' votes.

Animals to gain status as individuals, not objects

The country's Ministry of Justice has given advance notice to revise the nation's civil code in a way that would extend legal status to animals as individuals that deserve protection. The existing law regards animals merely as objects that take up space, and those who abuse them can only be charged for damaging property or not at all. 

South Korea's Animal Protection Act defines animals as beings with “developed nervous systems through which they could feel pain,” such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Although it was enacted to deter people from intentionally inflicting pain on animals, cases of animal abuse have been increasing, from 69 in 2010 to 914 in 2019.

The revised law would add a clause that animals are not objects and once it is passed by the National Assembly and comes into force, tougher laws on animal abuse and mistreatment should follow. It would also put South Korea in the company of 32 other countries that formally recognize animals as sentient beings that must be protected.

Animals and their welfare becoming more popular

Granting animals legal status is inevitable as South Koreans develop a closer bond with their companion animals. In 2020, 6.38 million households kept pets, an increase of 8% from the 5.91 million households with pets in 2019. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said the numbers suggest that 28% of the country's 23 million households are likely to have at least one pet, which collectively makes them an attractive demographics for politicians to woo.

The country's current presidential candidates are calling for improved animal and pet protection policies, the creation of more pet parks and pet adoption centers.

This move isn’t the first in recent pro-pet sentiment in South Korea. In 2020, there were several pro-animal regulations on the ministry’s docket, including:

  • A mandatory course on animal rights prior to pet adoption.
  • Teaching on the subject of animal rights in schools. (As of March 2020, dissecting animals during science class is only allowed if schools meet certain criteria.)
  • An insurance program for owners of certain breeds of dogs such as Tosa, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Rottweiler and related mixed breeds.
  • Maximum three-year imprisonment for any mistreatment leading to the death of an animal.
  • A ban on dogs that are kept on a short leash at home and are confined in dimly lit rooms.
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