All major candidates have incorporated animal welfare issues -- from tougher punishment for animal abuse to a cut in medical costs -- into their official platform to woo the growing number of animal lovers in the country.
According to government data, 21.8 percent of the South Korean households -- about 10 million people -- lived with a companion animal as of 2015. The pet industry was worth 1.8 trillion won ($1.58 billion) in 2015, and is expected to grow threefold by 2020 at the current pace.
One of the most contentious issues is a ban on dog meat consumption. The majority of South Koreans now reject dog meat, but it is still consumed especially among older generations in summer, in accordance with the belief it can restore vitality.
The country may be slowly moving away from dog eating. The Seongnam City government in December decided to close the country’s biggest dog market, Moran Market, just south of Seoul, which had been home to 22 dog meat suppliers.
Presidential candidates did not specifically include a prohibition on dog meat consumption in their official manifestos, but some promised to ban it in stages.
Asked by six local animal rights groups, three candidates -- Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party, Yoo Seong-min of the conservative splinter Bareun Party and Sim Sang-jeung of the minor Justice Party -- promised to phase out dog meat trade.
Front-runner Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party Korea reserved his answer, though his camp earlier agreed to forbid it in stages when asked by local daily Hankook Ilbo.
Conservative firebrand Hong Joon-pyo of the far-right Liberty Korea Party did not answer. He only promised to better manage conditions at dog farms.
The presidential hopefuls also laid out other plans to improve animal welfare.
Moon, a pet owner himself, raising one dog and two cats, promised to set up more playgrounds for pets, promote adoption of abandoned animals and standardize medical costs for animals. He also vowed to establish more feeding facilities for feral cats and expand free spaying and neutering to keep their numbers under control.
|Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea plays with a dog at an animal park in Seoul, April 15.|
“I will set up bodies committed to protecting animals in central and regional governments and push for a comprehensive animal welfare plan as a key policy,” he said at a playground for pets at Seoul World Cup Stadium. Moon had also included animal welfare pledges in his election manifesto in 2012 during his first bid for the presidency.
Government statistics show an estimated 80,000 dogs are ditched by their owners each year, with animal rights activists expecting the actual figure to be higher considering dogs not reported.
Ahn, who has consistently polled in second, vowed to standardize medical costs for pets, impose toughened punishments for animal abusers and make the process of breeding, transporting and selling animals more transparent. He also said he will stipulate animals as “living creatures” by civil law and reduce abandoned animals by 30 percent by 2022.
“I oppose dog meat consumption. It should be banned in phases. I will persuade stakeholders in the dog meat industry (to give it up) and lead them to find other ways,” he said in a meeting with animal advocacy groups.
Hong, who has closely trailed Ahn, said he will discard the value-added taxes in the medical costs for pets to reduce the financial burden on pet owners and add a clause protecting animals in the Constitution.
Yoo pledged to step up monitoring on abandonment of animals, offer subsidies for animal vaccination to low-income families and standardize the medical costs.
He is the only candidate who has promised to root out the “illegal operation of dog farms” via his official election platform. He also opposes the country’s culture of eating dog.
Sim vowed to revise the Animal Protection Act, which regards animals as property, and include animal rights in the Constitution. She is the only contender to use the term “animal rights” in her election manifesto.
She has also said she would make it mandatory to register pets, ban the use of restrictive cages in animal farms for the next 10 years, increase the number of quarantine experts to curtail animal diseases and set up crematoriums for animals.
South Korea has frequently seen outbreaks of animal diseases such as bird flu and foot and mouth, which has led to the massive slaughter of both non-infected and infected animals.
Lee Won-bok, head of the Korea Association for Animal Protection, said the group is pleased candidates have promised better protection for animals as part of their election platform.
“But the pledges lack specific goals and plans for implementation,” he said. “They are also too focused on pets, failing to cover wild animals, farm animals or animals used for experimentation.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com)