Dog-bite case sparks debate in South Korea

South Korean star Choi Si Won with his family's French bulldog. Despite the dog's reportedly recurring aggressive behaviour, it was unleashed when it bit a woman who later died.
South Korean star Choi Si Won with his family's French bulldog. Despite the dog's reportedly recurring aggressive behaviour, it was unleashed when it bit a woman who later died.PHOTO: INTERNET

Death of woman puts focus on pet ownership, leads to tighter laws

The high-profile case of a Korean restaurant-chain owner who died after she was bitten by her celebrity neighbour's dog has sparked fierce debate about responsible pet ownership and led the government to tighten related laws.

The 53-year-old victim, identified by her surname Kim, was in the lift of her apartment building in the upscale Gangnam district when the incident happened on Sept 30. She died of septic shock six days later.

The French bulldog, which was unleashed at the time, belongs to K-pop star Choi Si Won's family.

When the story broke last weekend, it set off alarm bells in this country of 50 million people, where one in five owns pets, mostly dogs. Pet ownership is expected to double to 20 million by 2020 as more people who are elderly or live alone turn to animals for companionship.

But related laws, like registration and those requiring dogs to be leashed in public, are not strictly enforced. Over 1,200 cases of unleashed dogs in Seoul were reported in the first half of the year, but only 29 dog owners were fined.

Calls for harsher penalties for irresponsible owners have grown in recent years, as the number of dog attacks, some of them fatal, rose.

The Korea Consumer Agency received 1,046 reports as of August, up from 1,019 last year and 245 in 2011.

  • Canine attacks in recent months

  • October 2017: A one-year-old girl dies four days after being bitten on the neck by her family's seven-year-old jindo dog.

    September: A 78-year-old woman is mauled to death by her 18kg pungsan dog.

    September: A couple in their 40s taking a stroll in a park are attacked by four unleashed hunting dogs. Police book the dogs' owner without detention.

    September: The owner of a pit bull terrier is found guilty of negligence and sentenced to 18 months' jail. His dog attacked a woman in her 70s in December last year after escaping from his house.

    The woman had her right leg and some fingers amputated after the attack.

    May: A 66-year-old woman dies after being attacked by her own dog.

    Chang May Choon

In recent weeks, a one-year-old girl died after she was bitten on the neck by her family's jindo, while a 78-year-old woman was mauled to death by her pet pungsan. Both animals are breeds of hunting dogs.

But the authorities took action only after the "Choi Si Won bulldog incident" sparked a public backlash. The star's apology drew 32,000 comments, many lambasting his family for not restraining the dog despite its recurring aggressive behaviour. The dog has apparently since been sent to the countryside, according to media reports.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said last Monday it would raise the fine for dog owners who do not leash their pets in public to 200,000 won (S$240) from 50,000 won for first offenders. It would also expand its list of six dangerous dogs, which now includes pit bull terriers and rottweilers. All must be muzzled in public.

Separately, the Seoul city government said it would deploy more officers to patrol three major parks.

However, whether the French bulldog's bite was responsible for Ms Kim's death remains debatable. Bacteria found in its saliva can cause septic shock in rare cases, but there is no conclusive evidence as no autopsy was conducted before the victim's funeral.

Her family said they decided not to take legal action, with her son telling Chosun Sports daily that it would not bring her back. "(The Choi family) apologised multiple times and we accepted it," he said.

Amid calls to put down such "killer dogs", the Korean Animal Welfare Association has pushed for greater transparency in the pet market and the enforcement of pet registration and microchipping.

Dog owners told The Sunday Times they are now more cautious when taking their pets out.

Guest-house owner Grace Kim, 27, said her Shetland sheepdog has been trained since it was young not to go near people in public.

"We used to let her walk freely in the neighbourhood, but now we make sure to leash her all the time."

Housewife Jamie Jung, 33, who said she never allows children to go near her chihuahua, noted that stricter penalties will not change owners' behaviour overnight.

"It's better to focus on educating dog owners," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 29, 2017, with the headline 'Dog-bite case sparks debate in South Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe