South Korea’s parliament on Tuesday passed a bill banning the breeding, slaughtering and selling of dogs for their meat.
The traditional practice has been dubbed an embarrassment for the country by activists.
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.
The Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C stated that South Koreans eats 100,000 metric tonnes of dog meat.
Beyond South Korea, however, estimates from Humane Society International, claim 30 million dogs are slaughtered annually for food worldwide.
However, consumption in South Korea has sharply declined recently as the country embraces pet ownership.
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 — also a vocal critic of dog meat consumption.
The bill, proposed by 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 ($AU23,000) 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 politician 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 politicians 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, Humane Society International/Korea executive director, said.
“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.”
While the ban on dog meat is a pioneering decision globally, it raises questions about the broader consumption of meats like beef, pork, and chicken. One Reddit commenter questioned why the prohibition should stop at dog meat, suggesting a ban on other meats. Another responded, highlighting the ingrained societal view that some animals are considered pets while others are seen as livestock.
The distinction between pets and livestock – or specisism – is deeply embedded in cultural and historical contexts. In Western cultures, domesticated animals like dogs and cats, are commonly regarded as pets, while livestock animals like cows, pigs, and chickens are raised almost exclusively for food. In some Eastern cultures, including South Korea, the consumption of dog meat has historical roots.
However, in a survey released on Monday by Seoul-based think tank Animal Welfare Awareness, Research, and Education, found that nine out of 10 people in South Korea 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 businesses can leave the trade.
According to government figures, around 1,100 dog farms breed hundreds of thousands of dogs each year that are served in restaurants across the country.
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.