South Korea passes bill to ban eating dog meat, ending controversial practice as

Seoul, South Korea

South Korea’s parliament passed a bill Tuesday banning the breeding and slaughter of dogs for consumption, ending the traditional yet controversial practice of eating dog meat after years of nationwide debate.

The bill received rare bipartisan support across South Korea’s divided political landscape, highlighting how attitudes toward eating dog have transformed over the past few decades during the country’s rapid industrialization.

The law will ban the distribution and sale of food products made or processed with dog ingredients, according to the corresponding committee of the National Assembly.

However, customers who consume dog meat or related products will not be subject to punishment – meaning the law would largely target those working in the industry such as dog farmers or sellers.

Under the bill, anybody slaughtering a dog for food can be punished by up to three years in prison or fined up to 30 million Korean won (about $23,000). Anyone who breeds dogs for eating, or who knowingly acquires, transports, stores or sells food made from dogs, also faces a lower fine and prison time.

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Caged dogs are seen in a truck during a protest by dog farmers against the government’s move to ban dog meat consumption, in Seoul on November 30, 2023.

Farm owners, dog meat restaurants and other workers in the dog trade will have a three-year grace period to close or change their business, according to the committee. Local governments will be required to support those business owners to “stably” transition to other businesses.

The bill now heads to President Yoon Suk Yeol for final approval. It was proposed by both Yoon’s ruling party and the main opposition party, and has received vocal support from First Lady Kim Keon Hee, who owns multiple dogs and visited an animal protection organization during a presidential state visit to Netherlands in December.

Like parts of Vietnam and southern China, South Korea has a history of consuming dog meat. It was traditionally viewed in South Korea as a food that could help people beat the heat during the summer, and was also a cheap and readily available source of protein at a time when poverty rates were far higher.

There are about 1,100 dog farms operating for food purposes in South Korea, and about half a million dogs being raised on these farms, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

But the practice has also come under criticism in recent decades, with animal rights activists at the forefront; international rights groups such as Humane Society International (HSI) have worked to rescue dogs from South Korean farms and relocate them overseas.

The number of South Koreans eating dog meat has also declined dramatically as pet ownership became more common. Consumers of dog meat now skew older, while younger, more urban South Koreans tend to veer away, mirroring similar trends in other parts of Asia.

In a 2022 survey by Gallup Korea, 64% of respondents were against eating dog meat – a notable increase from a similar survey in 2015. The number of respondents who had eaten dog meat in the past year had also fallen, from 27% in 2015, to just 8% in 2022.

Between 2005 and 2014, the number of restaurants serving dog in the capital Seoul fell by 40% due to the declining demand, official statistics showed.

“Our perception of dog meat consumption and animals in general has been changing over the last decades,” said Lee Sang-kyung, campaign manager of the dog meat ban at HSI Korea.

“It was once popular when our food resources (were) scarce, such as during the Korean War, but as the economy develops and people’s perception towards animals and our food consumption, food choices, and things change, then I think it’s the right time to move with the times.”

He added that the bill’s passing on Monday is partly due to increased political will, which “is growing with the First Lady’s interest.”

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Dogs farmers scuffle with police officers during a protest on November 30, 2023 in Seoul, South Korea.

But the bill has also met fierce resistance from dog farmers and business owners who say it will devastate their livelihood and traditions.

In November, dozens of dog farmers and breeders gathered outside the presidential office in Seoul to protest the bill – with many bringing their farmed dogs in cages that they intended to release at the scene, according to Reuters. Scuffles broke out between the farmers and police at the scene, with some protesters detained.

One such dog farmer, Lee Kyeong-sig, told Reuters last November: “If I have to close down, with the financial condition I’m in, there really is no answer to what I can do … I’ve been in this for 12 years and it is so sudden.”

In a November news release, the Korean Dog Meat Association accused the government of “threatening to trample” the industry, and of proposing the bill “without a single discussion or communication” with dog meat consumers or workers.

“No one has the right to rob 10 million (dog meat consumers) of their right to food and the right to survival of 1 million livestock dog farmers and workers,” it said in the news release.

However, Lee, the HSI manager, was optimistic that the bill’s grace period and relief measures would help keep dog farmers afloat.

“Based on our experience talking to industry workers at HSI, we knew that the majority of dog meat farmers and slaughterers, they want to leave the industry but they don’t know how to leave the industry,” he said.

“But now with the bill, having a compensation package (and) financial support from the government, I think it’s the right time to leave the industry for them as well.”

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