EDITING: From Apathy to Empathy?

The uneven progress of Korea’s animal protection movement

This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Groove Korea. Edited by Anita McKay. Story by Eileen Cahill. Additional reporting by Chung Jiyoung and Hana Jin. Photos by Turner Hunt. Illustration by Craig Stuart. View the magazine [PDF] here.


The dog, a Jindo mix, was behind a low wall near a temple. First, the monk walked past the wall, drunkenly yelling at the dog. Then he came back with an axe. Angry with the dog for barking too much, the monk brought the axe down on the animal’s head. His crime was captured on CCTV.

Yet the monk’s demeanor was perfectly normal when he spoke with AJ Garcia and Soyoun Park over lunch a few weeks later. They talked about Buddhism.

Park is founder and president of Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth. Garcia, her husband, was CARE’s director of investigations and international affairs for several years and now heads its U.S. affiliate. But on that day in 2012, the monk believed Garcia was a tourist with an interest in Buddhism.

“Then my wife came out with it, saying, ‘Listen, this is why we’re here,” Garcia told Groove. “We’re here because you are responsible for this dog’s death. And you need to come to the police station with us.’”

Park and Garcia had already submitted the footage to the local police.

“The police went there and said, ‘Oh, he’s not there,’” Garcia told Groove. “And that was it. So we said, ‘Well, are you going to go try and look for him?’” The answer was no.

Instead of giving up, Park and Garcia found the monk at the temple where he was staying. They videotaped his confession after confronting him over lunch.

“My wife and I brought him to the police station,” Garcia recalled. “We told the police that we’d found him, and we told the police that we were bringing him to the police station. They didn’t like that very much.”

The monk was convicted under the Animal Protection Act and went to prison for six months — an exceptionally harsh penalty in Korea, which passed its first animal welfare legislation in 1991 and made extensive revisions in 2007 and 2011. The legislation addresses the treatment of animals in multiple contexts such as transportation, slaughter, vivisection, holding periods for lost pets, and the administration of homeless pet shelters. It addresses the responsibilities of pet guardians. In one section, it sets forth regulations on pet cremation businesses.

Most non-institutionalized forms of animal abuse fall under Article 8, “Prohibition of Cruelty to Animals, etc.” Killing animals by hanging or starvation, abandoning animals, killing or injuring animals “without any justifiable grounds,” killing or injuring animals for gambling or entertainment (with a few exceptions), and killing animals in front of members of their own species violate Article 8 and constitute criminal offenses. These offenses and a few others are punishable by as much as a year in prison or a fine as high as 10 million won, but actual prison time is rare — usually, the penalty is a fine or a suspended sentence. Killing animals to eat, wear, or experiment on does not violate Article 8 because other statutes authorize these activities.

But violations routinely go unpunished, according to Garcia, who was born in Venezuela and moved to the United States with his family at age 10. Having worked in the animal protection field in the United States — as an undercover investigator for Mercy for Animals, he got an inside look at the animal agriculture industry — he has harsh words for the Korean system, saying police inaction is the norm and not the exception.

Apathy, he said, is the common response from authorities responsible for enforcing cruelty legislation at all levels: police, prosecutors and government officials. Earlier this year, the killing of another dog — Haetari, also a Jindo mix cruelly attacked with an axe — almost went unpunished because the police didn’t think the abuser’s confession constituted strong enough evidence. But charges were laid and the abuser was convicted, Garcia said, after CARE supporters filed online petitions with the police agency. Pressure made a difference.

Crimes of intent: a weakness in the law

In 2012, the police drew condemnation when they decided not to pursue a suspect after the widely publicized “Devil Equus” incident. A man driving an Equus was videotaped dragging a beagle behind a car, causing the dog’s death. Many Koreans were outraged, but the police accepted the driver’s claim that it was an accident.

In a 2013 blog post on KLawGuru.com, bilingual attorney Kang Ju-won offered a possible explanation for the authorities’ decision. Kang, who writes a blog in English to make Korean legal issues more accessible for non-Koreans, exposed a flaw that makes the Animal Protection Act very difficult to enforce.

“Articles 8, 46, and 47 of the Animal Protection Act prohibit/punish only ‘crimes of intent,’” Kang wrote in his blog post. “In Korean criminal law, a person can be punished for a ‘crime of negligence’ only if/when the law specifically outlines such a crime.”

Korea’s Animal Protection Act contains no such provision, Kang explained.

“According to reports,” Kang wrote, “the owner of the beagle stated that he had placed the dog in the trunk because the dog’s feet smelled of manure, and he did not want to dirty the inside of his car. The man also said he had deliberately left the trunk open because he feared the dog would suffocate. The man asserted he had no idea the dog had jumped out of the trunk (and was being dragged). In his mind, the man had made sure the dog could not jump out of the trunk.”

When Groove asked Kang to elaborate, he conceded that a conviction under the Animal Protection Act might not have been impossible.

“I think it would have been a toss-up,” he said. To convict the accused man, Kang explained, the prosecution would have had to prove that the Equus driver had foreseen the possibility of the dog being dragged to his death but was “OK” with it — and that would have been very difficult, for the same reason it is difficult to prove a doctor botched an operation on purpose.

“I cannot imagine a doctor being ‘OK’ with a botched operation if he/she had a choice,” Kang said.

In the Devil Equus case, Kang speculated that the accused man might have transported dogs in the same manner on many other occasions and been lucky.

“Egregious, negligent, and culpable as his actions still were, the court might still have to think long and hard on whether he was ‘OK’ (in his mind) with the outcome,” he said. “In his mind, he might have thought/believed there was no way the dog could jump out. Under the negligence theory, we need not worry about that because we can punish him even if he was ‘not OK’ with what happened.”

Kang’s solution: Add a clause to the Animal Protection Act specifically punishing criminal negligence.

Animal hoarders and how to deal with them

In July 2014, CARE removed about 100 severely neglected dogs from a property in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province. The situation was so extreme that liquid from the dogs’ body wastes was seeping through the floor into the apartment below.

The dogs had to live in a temporary shelter for about two months because there wasn’t enough space at any of CARE’s centers; many of the dogs were so fearful that workers couldn’t touch them. More than a year later, about 50 of the dogs live at CARE’s shelter in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province. It seems likely that some will be lifelong residents.

Animal hoarding is a phenomenon associated with mental illness — cases like this occur throughout the world, and experts have offered different explanations for this bizarre and harmful behavior. Hoarders present significant challenges for law enforcement, social services agencies, and animal protection groups. In Korea, hoarding cases are especially difficult to address under the current legal framework.

In the Gwangju case, Garcia said there was no way to prosecute the hoarder under Korea’s Animal Protection Act or to prevent him from acquiring more animals.

“He’s back at it with other dogs,” Garcia told Groove in April.

In another case earlier this year, eight or nine puppies were left unattended for five days with no food or water after their lawful “owner” moved away and left them behind. Garcia said the authorities simply refused to exercise the power they already had under the law to remove the puppies and provide temporary shelter. Fortunately, CARE managed to contact the owner and negotiate a voluntary surrender.

Part of the blame, Garcia said, lies with the appointment system for government officials, who are “thrown around to different departments” from year to year. In five years, he told Groove, none of the officers he’s dealt with has had any animal-related background or training — unlike the United States, where he said the people in charge of those areas of government tend to be people who make careers out of helping animals. In Korea, he said, “It’s just some random guy who doesn’t even know the Animal Protection Act.”

In a statement posted to its website in January, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said it was studying the problems caused by animal hoarders.

Visit to a dog farm

The “farm” in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, consisted of crude shelters, wire cages raised off the ground, wheelbarrows, and piles of boards. Many dogs were barking and some were whining. Most were in cages, but two beagles were tied up near the front of the property. They were wagging their tails.

Garcia called out to the farmer, but no one answered.

“He’s decontaminating food waste,” Garcia said, referring to the presence of an enormous black pot over a fire. It was difficult to hear over the barking, but Garcia said not all dog farmers were this concerned with sanitation — that many just fed food scraps as is.

The kitchen waste that people put in yellow bags?

“Yes,” said Garcia, who has traveled to dog farms all over Korea as an undercover investigator.

“I don’t know where he [the farmer] kills them,” he said, “but he burns the hair off on the other side [of the farm].”

Despite wording in Article 8 of the Animal Protection Act making it clear that hanging animals by the neck is an unacceptable method of slaughter, and that it is illegal to kill animals in front of members of their own species, Garcia said these practices are common on dog farms.

There is a popular misconception that the industry is “illegal” — that it’s an underground industry like the drug trade — however, no law prohibits either the sale of dog meat or the practice of raising dogs for slaughter. It is more accurate to say the industry is unregulated.

Discrepancies in different “livestock” laws fuel misunderstandings. Dogs are classified as livestock under the Livestock Industry Act but not the Livestock Products Sanitary Control Act. Changes to food sanitation laws over the years have confused matters further.

CARE campaigns against the dog meat industry, not because dogs are inherently more special than other animals but because the industry is already unpopular and seems headed for obsolescence.

Because CARE is an animal rights organization, vegan advocacy is a central part of its mission. Garcia and Park both live vegan, rejecting the use of all animals for food and clothing, and their 1-year-old daughter is being raised vegan. Yet the NGO is not opposed to compromise when dealing with bureaucrats and decision makers — that’s why it takes part in negotiating changes to the Animal Protection Act every time it comes up for review, knowing that any reforms will fall far short of the results it would like to see.

“Our goal is to stop the use of animals for any purpose,” Garcia said. “But because there are industries that are legal, like the farm industry, right? … We have to work together with them to make small changes [on the way to] ending those practices.”

In CARE’s eyes, a step forward for dogs might involve a change to the Livestock Industry Act, removing dogs from the list of species that can be raised for consumption. Because the Animal Protection Act prohibits killing animals without justification, such a change could potentially leave dog farmers open to criminal prosecution. Considering the need to placate voters on both sides, Garcia believes the government is unlikely to either criminalize the dog meat industry or regulate it — if it were to happen, however, he would see criminalization as a huge step forward.

Critics might say that singling out dogs for special protection is speciesism and therefore inconsistent with CARE’s mission. While acknowledging that a ban on dog meat would be speciesist, Garcia defends CARE’s stance.

“I would say you have two choices: Keep all animals on the plate, or — for now, at this moment — save even one animal from being [food]. You choose.”

The opposite perspective, one often iterated on message boards for English-speaking expats in Korea, is that the government should regulate the dog meat industry just like other “livestock” industries. According to this worldview, the dog meat industry can and should be made “humane.” Critics who hold this view say CARE and other Korean animal advocacy groups are behaving inconsistently and that their position is ironic.

“First of all,” Garcia responded, “I would just say that regulation is not going to happen.”

Regulation, he argued, would legitimize the industry by legally authorizing dog farmers to continue their activities. He believes the Korean people might have accepted such a solution 20, 15 or even 10 years ago, but not today.

“It’s not something that South Korea as a country wants to do,” he said. “South Korea does not want to be the first developed nation — the first and only developed nation in the world — to legalize dog meat. It’s just not going to happen. And then I would say, for those people who still want to play with the question, if — IF it’s possible — why not regulate it? I would say this is a hard question to answer.”

The question reflects ignorance of the practical realities of enforcing regulations, Garcia argued.

“Just because something is regulated in the books doesn’t mean that it actually gets regulated,” he said. “Even now, with other livestock, government officials don’t go to farms. They don’t go to check … slaughtering methods, and they don’t go check on the living conditions of the animals. They don’t check on the environmental impact that the farms are [having] … you know, do they have the proper disposal management equipment or not? They don’t do that.”

That was in April. During a follow-up interview in July, Garcia said the Namyangju dog farm was still operating but the excess feces had been cleared away. The two friendly beagles were no longer there.

Humane slaughter: an oxymoron?

Garcia sometimes suspects that government officials feel less pressure to do their jobs because they know CARE will step in. Its unofficial policing role extends even to the process of monitoring slaughter methods: Garcia has traveled to farms all over Korea where authorities killed animals in mass numbers to stamp out economic threats such as foot-and-mouth disease.

“Just like three weeks ago I went to see pigs,” Garcia said in April, “and they were all gassed with CO2.”

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs deemed it necessary after 30 pigs tested positive for foot-and-mouth disease. Workers put the 2,300 pig bodies in plastic containers and buried them.

“You know, CO2 is supposed to be the most painless way,” he said. “But from what I saw it doesn’t seem like that … but at least they’re not burying them alive.”

CARE was involved in exposing the cruel methods used to kill animals during the 2010-2011 outbreaks of avian influenza and foot and mouth disease. Mass live burials had been documented many times over the years but only captured the public’s attention in early 2011, when officials involved in the slaughter publicly admitted it on social media. Millions of animals were reportedly buried alive in late 2010 and early 2011 and many cows were reportedly injected, fully conscious, with a drug that paralyzed their lungs and caused them to die in a state of panic.

But now Garcia says the government is aware of the need to follow a protocol during disease outbreaks — that means killing animals with carbon dioxide in accordance with OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) guidelines. What he witnessed that day in March was the industry’s gold standard for mass slaughter.

“I can’t say 100 percent it’s not happening anymore,” he said of live burial. “But the government officials know, and they understand, that burying animals alive is illegal. And that you — they — have to do it the way the manual says. … They know this now.”

Garcia said his colleague, Lee Won-bok of the Korea Association for Animal Protection, had been especially active in monitoring the stamping-out incidents.

“If he finds out about some outbreak, he’ll call,” Garcia said. “And he’ll call the office in charge of dealing with it and he’ll tell them, ‘You have to do this the way it’s written in the manual. You cannot bury them alive. It’s illegal.’… If they don’t have [the right equipment], he’ll come up with ideas of how to make something so that they do it the proper way. So it’s changing. And it’s been a long time coming.”

Like Garcia and Park, Lee Won-bok is a longtime vegan who opposes slaughtering animals on principle. Garcia questions what the idealistic, antispeciesist answer would be in a case like this — save a few animals and take them to safety? Any such rescue, small scale or otherwise, seems highly improbable given that stamping out is mandated by law.

“Both avian influenza and foot and mouth disease are rampant,” he said. “Rampant. Both, still. Now it’s become like a year-round thing in this country. It’s so bad. It’s so bad.”

That interview took place in April. In September, an animal health expert told Groove the diseases were no longer present in Korea but could be expected to return in the winter when wild birds migrate from China and Russia.

Stalled progress on moon bears

In Korea and other parts of Asia, “farmed” bears are confined to cages and have bile extracted from their gall bladders through catheters or holes in their abdomens. The liquid is expensive and is widely used in traditional medicines and other products. Although the industry is on the verge of collapse, an estimated 970 bears remain confined in horrible conditions on the nation’s remaining bile farms, according to Gina Moon of moonbears.org.

Bear farming has been the focus of international campaigns for years not only because of the extraction process but because the bears are confined to small cages and deprived of the chance to express normal behaviors (such as hibernating in winter). Conditions on bear farms cause extreme physical and psychological suffering. Asiatic black bears (also known as moon bears because of the markings on their chests) belong to an endangered species, and the Ministry of Environment oversees separate wildlife legislation affecting these animals; however, the “milking” of live bears for bile also violates the Animal Protection Act. This creates confusion as to which ministry is responsible for monitoring bear farms and prosecuting violations.

Three years ago, when the International Union for Conservation of Nature adopted a resolution advocating that its member states take steps to end bear farming, many animal advocates celebrated.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress took place on Jeju Island in 2012, and Korea signed the resolution. At the time, there was talk of the government buying out bear farmers and building a sanctuary for the surviving bears. Talks, however, seem to have stalled and one of the major NGO partners — Green Korea United — seemed to believe the IUCN resolution did not apply in Korea because Korea has no wild population of moon bears.

“As for the sanctuary for the surviving bears,” said Hwang In-cheol of Green Korea United in response to an inquiry, “the government is refusing to create it due to budget constraints, and there is a slim chance that the sanctuary will be established. … There is an ongoing discussion regarding measures to buy and protect bears for the purpose of research and education at state-run institutes, but nothing is concrete yet.”

Animal welfare in Korea: the authorities’ response

Groove attempted to contact the National Police Agency for a response to Garcia’s comments. After making several phone calls to the agency and getting no answer, our Korean reporter was transferred to different divisions and finally instructed to request the information in writing. When asked how to file the request, the person in charge promised to get back to Groove but never did.

An official with the Ministry of Environment could not immediately be reached for questioning about the surviving moon bears and whether a sanctuary would ever be built.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs — the body in charge of updating and enforcing the Animal Protection Act— devises plans every five years to address animal welfare concerns. CARE and other animal protection groups always negotiate for the strongest changes that have a chance of passing; as one might expect, MAFRA also considers the views of their adversaries.

As of this writing, MAFRA had posted its plan for the years 2015 to 2019; the 2020 plan had not yet been released to the public and Groove was waiting for an email from a ministry spokesperson concerning its content.

The email was submitted to MAFRA on August 28 and a Groove reporter followed up by phone to confirm that the official in charge had received it. The official promised to read the email and get back to us, but said he would not respond if the article included criticism of the government.

“Five years ago, that wasn’t news”

In February, the JTBC media network broadcast footage showing a man whipping, punching and kicking a 20-year-old horse as the animal struggled to pull a heavy carriage. The driver pulled violently on the reins and the horse collapsed, but the first man (the one standing outside the carriage) continued to beat him while he was on the ground.

The abuser was convicted under the Animal Protection Act and fined 2 million won. With CARE’s help, Ggamdol spent his final months at an equestrian center in Namyangju. Sadly, Ggamdol died in August after losing the use of his back legs.

But the case succeeded in raising awareness about the cruelty of the carriage horse industry, said Garcia, judging from the response on social media as well as the mainstream media.

“Public awareness of the horse carriage issue is at an all-time high,” he said. “That issue got the most media attention out of all the cases we have ever done.”

Interest in Ggamdol’s case is part of a trend toward greater interest in animal issues overall, Garcia believes. For example, he sees the dog meat industry dying and the culture changing as the sons and daughters of dog farmers refuse to take over the family business.

“Younger kids are not eating dog meat,” he said. “Younger kids are starting to see the importance and the value of animals — maybe not all animals, but dogs and cats.”

He mentioned a case CARE dealt with in 2013, when a group of community cats (stray cats under the care of volunteer “cat moms”) were locked in a basement in an apartment complex in southern Seoul.

“It’s news,” he said. “Five years ago, that wasn’t news. Who cares about cats? Right? But things are changing. And the Korean farming association, they know this.”

More Information:

CARE www.careanimalrights.org and http://www.facebook.com/groups/careexpatvolunteers

KARA http://www.facebook.com/kara.animal

Other Resources

Angel.or.kranimal.go.kr (lost and found animals)

Rescue.org (adoption listings)


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