|This photo shows four homeless dogs that were rescued by the Korean Animal Welfare Association in Chagwon, South Gyeongsang Province, in February. Courtesy of Korean Animal Welfare Association|
By Lee Hyo-jin
On March 7, a dog was spotted tied to the rear of an SUV vehicle driving at 80 kilometers per hour on a road in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province. The dog was hanging unconscious with its feet severely damaged.
The Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA) filed a police report against the driver and owner of the dog, a man in his 60s, for animal cruelty resulting in its death, March 24.
During the police investigation, the man reportedly said he had no intentions to kill the dog, claiming he had "tied the dog to the truck to make it exercise, and then picked up speed because he had forgotten about it."
The incident immediately prompted an uproar among internet users calling for heavy punishment, but in many cases in Korea, animal abusers get off leniently compared with the level of the violence of their crimes.
According to the Ministry of Justice, among 3,398 animal abusers whose cases were referred to the prosecutors' office between 2016 and 2020, more than half, or 1,741 people, were not indicted. Only 3 percent, or 93 cases, were submitted for a court trial.
Following the revision to the Animal Protection Act, punishment against animal abusers was strengthened as of Feb. 12. Those convicted of animal cruelty resulting in death can be sentenced to up to three years in prison or fined 30 million won ($2,700), up from the previous two years imprisonment and a 20 million won fine.
But stronger laws may not lead to heavier punishments, according to animal rights activists.
While Korea's animal protection laws are not considered lenient compared with other countries, they pointed out a lack of awareness and knowledge on animal welfare among law enforcement authorities.
"Some police officers are not fully aware of animal-related laws, nor the recent changes in the laws. In many cases, investigations are launched only when we, animal rights activists, collect evidence ourselves and submit it to the authorities who do not take animal abuse very seriously," Chae Il-taek, an official at KAWA, told The Korea Times.
Also, due to the absence of specific sentencing guidelines in court, the level of punishment significantly varies according to the judges.
In January 2020, a man was sentenced to four months in prison for brutally killing two stray cats.
"Such a ruling shows that the punishment guidelines with a maximum three-year prison sentence will have little meaning if the law enforcement authorities do not conduct a proper investigation or the court continues to make rulings going across public opinion on animal welfare," Chae said.
Lee Hyung-joo, head of Animal Welfare Awareness, Research and Education (Aware), echoed the sentiment, saying, "Some police officers as well as officials in the government's animal welfare department have low awareness and little knowledge of animal-related laws."
She said the law enforcement authorities should revise their investigation manuals on animal abuse and introduce animal control officers, as in the U.S., who are in charge of animal-related crimes.