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Gov’t seeks to recognize animals as ‘living beings,’ not ‘objects’

Law revision expected to enhance awareness of animal rights

By Lee Hyo-jin

For a country with around 1.5 million pet owners, Korea’s legal framework for animal protection has been considered relatively weak, leading to low public awareness on animal welfare, and lenient punishment for animal cruelty.

A major reason for this, pointed out by many animal rights activists, is because the civil code defines animals as “objects,” not living beings. Under the current law, animals are regarded as the property of their human owners, something that can be owned, traded and controlled without any of the basic rights that are given to people.

Therefore, animal abusers often face relatively weak punishment proportional to their level of cruelty, as their sentences are based on the Property Damage Law and Animal Protection Law.

But this may change, as the Ministry of Justice announced plans recently to amend the civil code to legally recognize animals as living entities.

In response to an increasing number of people who perceive companion animals as part of their family, the ministry said that it will remove animals from the category of property and designate a possible third category, in a bid to ensure their basic legal rights.

Animal rights activists welcomed the ministry’s decision, saying the amendment will improve animal welfare and lead to stricter laws for the protection of non-human life.

What does the revision mean?

“To put it shortly, it is about enhancing animals’ legal status, as many animal rights activists have been demanding for a long time,” said Sin Su-kyung, a lawyer at People for Non-human Rights (PNR), a group of lawyers engaged in animal protection activities.

Sin expressed hopes that as the amendment will elevate animals’ legal status beyond property, it will bring better treatment for them in their daily lives as well as in legal conflicts.

Chae Il-taek, an official at the Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA), said, “This will be the first step in establishing the rights of non-human life in our legal system. We expect positive changes in animal-related laws to follow.”

Pet owners attend a pet fair at SETEC in Gangnam District, Seoul, Friday. Yonhap
A citizen walks her dog in downtown Seoul, Jan. 24. Yonhap

What changes will the amendment bring?

Both Sin and Chae viewed that changing perceptions of animals as living beings, not objects, will lead to revisions to animal-related laws and criminal law provisions, as well as the Constitution.

“Although changing a civil code may not bring drastic changes in the short term, it will provide grounds for legislation of special laws on animal protection or the stipulation of animal rights in the Constitution, which will resolve current difficulties in dealing with animal abuse offenses,” Chae said.

A major reason why it is difficult to revoke the ownership of people who abuse their pets is because the Constitution guarantees their right to property. Also, punishment of animal slaughter on dog farms and exploitation in other facilities is not easy, as it collides with freedom of occupation stipulated in the Constitution, according to Chae.

Sin believes that a more detailed compensation system for pet-related offenses will be established following the revision.

“Under the current system, people who commit violence toward pets compensate the pet owner based on how much the animals are worth on the market, which is not only unethical, but also a complicated procedure, for instance, when it is a mixed breed,” she said.

She added that improved legal status will also better protect pets in divorce proceedings. As companion animals are considered possessions during separation procedures in court, they are treated the same as furniture or real estate.

Will animal abusers face tougher punishments?

Although court rulings have been imposing increasingly harsher punishments for animal abusers than before, animal rights activists have been calling for additional legal grounds for charges other than “destroying property.”

Pet owners attend a pet fair at SETEC in Gangnam District, Seoul, Friday. Yonhap
In this CCTV footage captured on July 13, 2019, a man pours an unidentified liquid onto the body of a cat he killed in Mapo District, Seoul. Yonhap

In 2019, in a rare tough punishment for animal abuse, a man in his 30s was sentenced to six months in prison for killing his neighbor’s pet cat by slamming it to the ground multiple times. He was accused of property damage and violation of the Animal Protection Law.

“If animals are given a legal status other than as objects, it will boost discussions on supplementary provisions to the Criminal Law and the Animal Protection Law on strengthening legal penalties,” Chae said.

More discussions needed on detailed measures

Although the justice ministry’s announcement is meaningful, it is only the beginning, Sin said, adding that the authorities will need to work on the details of the revision.

It is still unclear whether the amendment will give legal status to all animals including laboratory animals and livestock. “The justice ministry should engage in talks with relevant government bodies such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs,” she said.

The ministry plans to run a taskforce on the amendment and hold meetings with external experts to craft detailed measures, while animal rights groups including the KAWA have expressed their full support for the legislation.

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