Parliament on Tuesday passed a bill banning breeding, slaughtering and selling dogs for their meat, a traditional practice that activists have called an embarrassment for the South Korean Republic.
Dog meat has long been a part of South Korean cuisine, and at one point up to a million dogs were killed for the trade every year, according to activists. But consumption has sharply declined recently as Koreans embrace pet ownership in droves.
Eating dog meat is a taboo among younger, urban South Koreans, and pressure on the government to outlaw the practice from animal rights activists has been mounting.
Official support for a ban has grown under President Yoon Suk Yeol, a self-professed animal lover who has adopted several stray dogs and cats with First Lady Kim Keon-hee — who is herself a vocal critic of dog meat consumption.
The bill, which was proposed by both the ruling and main opposition parties, was passed unopposed by a 208-0 vote, with two abstentions.
It will come into effect following a three-year grace period after it receives final approval from Yoon.
Under the law, breeding, selling and slaughtering dogs for their meat will be punishable by up to three years in prison or 30 million won ($23,000) in fines.
“Now there is no longer any justification for being criticised as a ‘dog-eating country’,” said Thae Yong-ho, a ruling People Power Party lawmaker who proposed the bill.
“The ruling and opposition parties and the government must now take the lead in protecting… animal rights,” he said in a statement.
Activists and some lawmakers gathered outside the National Assembly to celebrate the passing of the bill, with people cheering and waving posters saying “Goodbye dog meat consumption” and “dog meat free Korea is coming”.
Activists also welcomed the bill, saying it was “history in the making”.
“We reached a tipping point where most Korean citizens reject eating dogs and want to see this suffering consigned to the history books,” JungAh Chae, executive director of Humane Society International/Korea, said in a statement.
“Today our policymakers have acted decisively to make that a reality,” she said.
“While my heart breaks for all the millions of dogs for whom this change has come too late, I am overjoyed that South Korea can now close this miserable chapter in our history and embrace a dog friendly future.”
In a survey released on Monday by Seoul-based think tank Animal Welfare Awareness, Research, and Education, nine out of 10 people in South Korea said they would not eat dog meat in the future.
Tuesday’s vote was a pioneering decision globally, said activist group Animal Liberation Wave, adding it would pave the way for protecting the rights of other animals.
“The journey towards a ‘dog meat-free Republic of Korea’ can be a starting point for not only liberating dogs, but also presenting different standards and a future for other species of animals that are subject to industrial exploitation, such as cows, pigs, and chickens,” it said in a statement.
Previous efforts to ban dog meat have run into fierce opposition from farmers who breed dogs for consumption. The new law will provide compensation so that businesses can move out of the trade.
Around 1,100 dog farms breed hundreds of thousands of dogs each year that are served in restaurants across the country, according to government figures.
Dog meat is usually eaten in South Korea as a summertime delicacy, with the greasy red meat — invariably boiled for tenderness — believed to increase energy to help handle the heat.
The country’s current animal protection law is intended mainly to prevent the cruel slaughter of dogs and cats, but does not ban consumption itself.
Nonetheless, authorities have invoked the law and other hygiene regulations to crack down on dog farms and restaurants ahead of international events such as the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
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