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[Newsmaker] Justice ministry seeks to grant legal status to animals to enhance their welfare

The file photo taken on May 30, 2021, shows dogs running around in a pet playground in Seoul. (Yonhap)
The file photo taken on May 30, 2021, shows dogs running around in a pet playground in Seoul. (Yonhap)
The Ministry of Justice on Monday gave advance notice of a revision to the civil law that would grant animals legal status as individuals with lives that deserve to be protected.

The ministry said it has added the new clause, "animals are not objects," to article 82 of the Civil Code.

Under the existing law, animals are identified as "an object that takes up space" and are not separated from inanimate things, so animal abusers have been punished only for damaging property if they face a penalty at all.

The revision came after social consensus was reached on the need to improve animal protection, the ministry said, amid a steady rise in the number of companion animals and heightened awareness of animal welfare.

"When the revision takes effect, punishment for animal abuse and the level of compensation sought against such behaviors will move closer to what people would expect nowadays, and the ministry expects many other creative measures to be suggested for animal protection and respect for life," Choung Jae-min, the ministry's legal counsel, said during a briefing.

But the revision did not specify the scope and definition of animals under the civil law.

Under the Animal Protection Act, animals are defined as beings with "developed nervous systems through which they could feel pain," including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. It is designed to ban various acts that intentionally inflict pain on them.

The ministry is currently working to improve the civil law and reshape it to fit changes in social awareness and environment, Choung said.

According to Rep. Lee Eun-ju from the minor opposition Justice Party, violations of the animal protection law jumped to 914 in 2019 from 69 in 2010, but most abusers got away with a slap on the wrist.

Once the revision is passed by the National Assembly and comes into force, relevant laws will be expected to get tough on animal abuse and mistreatment, the ministry said.

"There is a fundamental difference between the law system that views animals as objects and the law system that views animals as living beings," Choung said.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the number of households raising pets was estimated at 6.38 million in 2020, up 8 percent from the previous year's 5.91 million. The figure roughly translates to 28 percent of the country's 23 million households. (Yonhap)
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