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Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Canine Companions in N. Korea


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Many of listeners out there may live with an animal companion. According to a 2022 survey about animal protection conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, one out of four South Koreans have animal companions, and about 75 percent of them raise dogs. 

Clothes, backpacks and grooming supplies are some of the conventional pet products. These days, you can also find pet insurance, PetTube, which is YouTube dedicated to pets and people who love them, and even pet tours that allow people to take their pets along with them on trips. In addition, the local pet industry is releasing creative programs and services incorporating new technology, as seen in the “Meta Seoul Pet,” where participants can adopt and raise animal companions in virtual space. 

We can’t help but wonder whether there is any culture related to animal companions in North Korea, and if so, what the culture is about. Today, we’ll learn about companion dogs in North Korea from Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

The newly-coined word, “pet-fam,” is the combination of pet and family. The “pet-fam” tribe refers people who think of their animal companions as their family. 

Not much is known about animal companions in North Korea. But it seems locals are ready for interactions and emotional connections with pets, regarding them as their family. People both in the West and the East have raised animals as companions since ancient times. It has been a long tradition that those in the upper class choose animals among livestock raised by private households and keep them as pets. In line with the increase in income level, more households in South Korea and in developed countries have accepted animal companions as part of their family. These days, more people use the term, “animal companions,” rather than “pet animals.” 

In North Korea, animals are mostly about livestock, and their practical purposes are considered important. But these days, some people perceive them as pets that live with them and please them as a member of their family. They form an emotional bond with the animals. Still, this is not a general trend in North Korean society. 

In North Korea, many people keep dogs as a pet. Some raise rabbits or monkeys. In modern society, some dogs specialize in professional areas, such as search and rescue missions, detecting substances including illegal drugs and explosives, and safely guiding blind people where they need to go. Dogs are quite familiar to humans, protecting their owners and warning strangers to stay away. 

The most famous dog in North Korea is the Pungsan breed, which often appears in local media. 

The Pungsan(풍산) dog is persevering, brave and aggressive enough to overpower its opponent. Even the German shepherd is defeated by this dog. 

As one of North Korea’s national symbols, the Pungsan dog was designated as the country’s national dog in 2014. The North registered it as the nation’s non-material cultural heritage and hosts a dog show to select the best Pungsan breed. To preserve the dog, the country built breeding farms and even operates a research institute at a local university. North Koreans’ love for the dog is extraordinary, indeed. 

In North Korea, the best virtues required for dogs are protecting the house and showing loyalty to their owners. Pet dog-related stories have been found in North Korean literature. For example, a newly-wedded couple is given a dog as a present. When the dog gives birth to puppies, the couple gives them to their neighbors. In another story, a puppy grows well in a family, loved by the family members. Dogs are described as a sociable friend that shares feelings with humans. 

The Pungsan dog was registered as a natural monument in 1956. Regime founder Kim Il-sung instructed officials to preserve the purebred Pungsan dog in 1963 and the country started running a breeding farm in 1968. As a result, North Korea has bred a considerable number of Pungsan dogs. But local residents are not allowed to raise the national dog of the Pungsan breed as a pet.

On the occasion of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung gave traditional South Korean Jindo dogs to then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a gift. Until the early 1980s, it was almost impossible to find North Korean citizens raising pet dogs. That is because North Korean authorities criticized the practice of keeping pet dogs as the decadent and ostentatious trappings of the wealthy class in capitalistic society. 

North Korea claimed that capitalistic society artificially created “inhumane demand” for the purpose of money making and consequently deformed a consumer life, criticizing people for spending a huge sum of money on pet animals. The North Korean monthly publication Chollima carried an article titled “Pet animals that became a millionaire” in 1992. In the article, the magazine ridiculed Western society, where dogs or cats are treated more specially than humans, and also mocked foreign reports about dogs or cats that inherited a fortune. In the North, the practice of giving good food to dogs as well as changing and bathing them is criticized as a typical example of the ills of capitalism. 

It is said that North Korea began to use the term “pet animals” in the late 1980s. Ahead of the World Festival of Youth and Students held in Pyongyang in 1989, North Korea did not stop locals from raising pet dogs. From then on, the trend of keeping pet animals spread in the nation gradually. 

In 2001, the magazine Chollima, in a very unusual move, said that a dog is a friendly domestic animal that is helpful for people’s lives and emotions. It explained in detail the characteristics of dogs, their living habits and some points to note when keeping the canine companion. Obviously, North Korea began to show changing attitudes regarding pet animals. 

Around the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989, outside culture flowed into North Korea. Also, the Arduous March period in the 1990s changed people’s living conditions in the North. Locals did everything to make money, selling and buying whatever they could. Some people began to smuggle goods from China. During the period of extreme economic difficulties, which threatened the survival of many North Koreans, some were ironically able to accumulate wealth. To meet the demand of those wealthy people, luxury goods were traded. Movies and TV series of the outside world, including South Korea, entered the reclusive North in the same period. Cute pet dogs were shown in some of the videos, creating demand in North Korea for small dogs that could be kept indoors. 

North Korean founder Kim Il-sung is known to have raised a dog when he was alive, while his son Kim Jong-il is also said to have donated as many as 100 dogs he had raised to the Central Zoo. 

Dear our general sent some 100 dogs of 33 breeds to our zoo on dozens of different occasions over the years. Every single one of the thousands of animals in the zoo is imbued with the general’s warm love and compassion. 

In North Korea, the culture of raising pet dogs that started from the top leaders and some upper class people spread among the general public.  

North Korea opened a foreign exchange shop in 1975 to induce foreigners residing in the North, North Koreans repatriated from overseas and North Korean laborers working abroad to spend foreign money they had. The shop mostly sold items of personal preference such as liquor and tobacco. From the late 1990s, it provided small dogs. Some purchased pet animals, apparently to show off their status or wealth. 

In 2001, the August 19 edition of the Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, reported that raising pet dogs came into fashion among Pyongyang citizens after the inter-Korean summit the previous year. It is said that many citizens took a walk with their dogs along the Taedong River in the capital on holidays, while nine more vet clinics were built in Pyongyang, reflecting North Koreans’ growing demand for pet dogs. 

In South Korea, an increasing number of households are raising animal companions, prompting many people to seek a career as a specialist in pet animal care. As a result, the number of relevant educational institutes is on the rise. Those who engage in animal behavior modification and rehabilitation training are some of the new professional jobs that have never been found before. 

On a similar note, many North Korean citizens are seen walking their dogs these days. According to reports, a North Korean book exhibition in 2020 showed books with interesting titles, such as How to Train Your Dog and 101 Foods for Dog Training. Are there any pet-related experts or industry in North Korea? 

While Kang Hyung-wook(강형욱) is the most famous dog trainer in South Korea, Dr. Ok Jin-youg (옥진영), director of the Animal Husbandry Center at North Korea’s Agricultural Research Institute, is known as a specialist in Pungsan dogs. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper often covers his story. But he is not really an expert in pet dogs. There are also Pungsan dog breeders in North Korea. 

South Korea has implemented the pet registration system since 2014 to prevent people from abandoning their pets and find lost pets easily. South Korean citizens have their own identification card that contains a unique resident registration number. Likewise, pet owners have to register their pets and get the registration number issued. 

Conducted by Statistics Korea every five years, the Population and Housing Census has included data on households with pets since 2020. South Korea enacted the Animal Protection Act in 1991 with the purpose of preventing animal abuse and defining responsibility of pet owners to protect and care for their pets appropriately so humans and animals can co-exist in a harmonious way. Under the revised Animal Protection Act, which came into effect on April 27 this year, pet owners are required to provide their pets with an adequate amount of space and food. If they neglect their duty of caring for their pets and cause the animals to die, they face a prison term of up to three years or a maximum fine of 30 million won, which is roughly 22-thousand US dollars. 

In line with a change in the perception about animal companions and in relevant systems, South Korea’s pet industry is expanding. According to the Korea Rural Economic Institute, the domestic pet care industry surpassed three trillion won or 2.2 billion dollars in 2021, with the market size estimated to expand to six trillion won or 4.4 billion dollars by 2027. In North Korea, on the other hand, a full-fledged pet industry doesn’t seem to have appeared. 

In many cases, pet owners in North Korea keep their pet animals indoors, since many residents live in apartment buildings. It is easy to imagine small dogs are popular. The Socialist Women’s Union of Korea’s official paper Korean Women included an article titled “Choosing a pet dog” in its fifth edition in 2019. This indicates that North Koreans can choose a pet they like and a related market has been formed. Still, for a full-grown industry to take root to provide various pet supplies including pet food, the market base should be broad enough to strike a balance between supply and demand. But that’s not the case in North Korea. 

If people want to live with animal companions properly, they should love animals, of course, with the income level of the society reaching a certain level. Also, members of the society should change their perception about pet animals. We hope South and North Korea will soon share their culture and industry related to animal companions and carry out exchanges in this area.

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