Ewha Law School
In most jurisdictions, animals are considered as things, not beings and South Korea is not an exception. In South Korea, any harm inflicted to animals, for example, can be only punishable when it belongs to a person, and when the person sues the offender for the harm done to her/his “property”. Unfortunately, the offenders often easily get away from any legal duties after paying some fines, leaving the animals and its owners without proper compensation. If the animal does not belong to anyone, there is no crime as animals do not have locus standi (the ability to stand before the court).
In fact, the laws for animal rights exist which might be of help to tackle similar cases. Animal rights in South Korea can be mainly derived from Animal Protection Act which was introduced in 1991 to protect the lives, safety and welfare of animals. The law prohibits any abuse done to the animals which are vertebrates that can feel pain through their developed nerve system. Here, the term, ‘animal abuse’ means an act of inflicting unnecessary and avoidable physical distress or stress on animals without justifiable grounds, or an act of neglecting or failing to take appropriate measures against their hunger, diseases, etc. The law goes on to provide examples of animal abuse under Article 8 which include but are not limited to a killing an animal on the street, inflicting an injury upon animals with a tool or drug, and hurting the body of live animals.
The law is clear that those acts are punishable under the country’s legal system, but the punishment is only limited to the imprisonment up to 1 year and fines up to ten million won (approximately 9000 USD). There was a case where a man killed 600 cats to make soup that is argued to be good for arthritis and he was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment (but the court placed him on probation for 2 years, so he never went to jail). Similar cases followed up and those were enough to make the law and its effectiveness questionable.
In fact, the cruelty-to-animals laws do not carry harsh penalties in most jurisdictions, and it is hard to find a perpetrator sentenced with any serious punishments. Considering many researchers have found a direct relationship between animal abusive behaviours and violent crimes, the laws certainly are not of any help to protect animals or to stop the offender starting to target humans.
England and Wales reviewed its law and planned to increase the sentence period from 6 months to 5 years. The courts have said they would have placed harsher punishment if the option was available. It shows the view of the courts is leaning towards changing the law to reflect the seriousness of animal abuse.
When it comes to Korea and animal abuse, people often associate the country with its dog meat farms. However, there are more different forms of animal abuse and the industry constitutes a very small part of it. The law is not ripe to answer the question; if animals should be given rights under the law, at least the basic ones like a right to life or freedom of torture, but there are cases where cruelty done to animals cannot be justified under any reason. The law has been revised several times, and the law is broadening the punishable area of cruelty to animals. The growing awareness of the public regarding animal welfare is likely to result in further revisions in the future amendments.
CARE (2017) Long awaited improvements to Korean Animal Protection Laws. https://careanimalrights.org/2017/03/improvements-to-korean-animal-protection-laws/
UK Government (2017) Sentences for animal cruelty to increase tenfold to five years. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/sentences-for-animal-cruelty-to-increase-tenfold-to-five-years