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Samsung’s dog-loving chairman: Man behind growing canine companionship in Korea

A visually impaired person is presented with a guide dog from Samsung Guide Dog School on April 19. (Samsung Guide Dog School)
A visually impaired person is presented with a guide dog from Samsung Guide Dog School on April 19. (Samsung Guide Dog School)
It all started with one man’s wish to share his joy of companionship with dogs.

In 1993 Samsung Group launched Korea’s first training school for dogs for guiding the blind, search and rescue, and therapy assistance. Behind the endeavor is its chairman, Lee Kun-hee, 71, renowned for his love of dogs.

“Dogs have been a source of great comfort and happiness in my life, so I encourage people to interact more with dogs,” he wrote in an essay published at a local newspaper in 1997.

It was when he was studying in Japan in the 1950s that he realized that a heart-to-heart talk between a man and a dog was possible, he said.

“It was hard for me to get along with school life after I came back from Japan, due to high anti-Japanese sentiment at that time. So I became more attached to dogs,” he wrote. 
This undated photo shows Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee spending time with a dog. (Samsung Guide Dog School)
This undated photo shows Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Kun-hee spending time with a dog. (Samsung Guide Dog School)

Lee himself led efforts to promote international recognition of Korea’s native Jindo dogs in the 1970s.

Samsung’s training center still remains the world’s only dog institute that is fully funded by a company, while most other centers are funded by private donation.

“The project has helped the visually impaired people increase their independence and mobility with guide dogs. But most importantly, their special partnership has touched many people’s hearts,” said Ha Woo-jong, PR manager for SGDS, which manages the project on commission by Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance.

“A growing number of people have started to view dogs as companions,” he added.

Lee’s affection for dogs may have played a part in shaking off Korea’s controversial image as a “dog-eating country.”

Animal activists in Europe were planning to boycott Korean products, followed by a series of reports on Korea’s dog-eating culture in 1988 when the country was hosting the Seoul Olympics.

Feeling frustrated, Lee invited members of animal rights organizations in Europe to his residence in Seoul and showed them around the pet industry to prove that Korea is not barbaric as they had thought. A few years later, Samsung started sponsoring Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show being held annually in the United Kingdom, and showcasing its animal welfare programs.

Lee’s efforts to improve the national image also helped his company make inroads into European markets, where animal abuse is taken seriously.

In recognition of Samsung’s work on training and breeding guide dogs to serve the blind, Lee received an award from the International Guide Dog Federation in 2002.

Lee supported the IGDF’s Seoul meeting in 2002 when the country was preparing for another international sporting event ― the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup ― and was being attacked by foreign media for its dog-eating culture again.

By Cho Chung-un (christory@heraldcorp.com)
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