Right-wing President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to foreign reporters in Seoul after winning a bitterly fought election. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

Whether they can accept the razor-thin result of the March 9 presidential election or not, many South Koreans would be just glad to know that the stressful election is finally over.

In an event dubbed the “nastiest presidential election” filled with accusations and scandals on a daily basis, the defeated candidate, former governor of Gyeonggi province Lee Jae-myung from the liberal governing Democratic Party (DP), and President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) are unlikely to be remembered as candidates who inspired voters throughout their campaigns. 

As if the unlikability of the two candidates wasn’t bad enough, the scandals also involved the two major candidates’ family members as well.

The wives of both Yoon and Lee had to be removed completely from the campaigns, unlike in other elections where spouses often played an important role, and other family members such as Lee’s son and Yoon’s mother-in-law were also recurring guests in various scandals and allegations.

Perhaps as an attempt to improve their shattered public images, the candidates paraded dogs and cats in this election described as a “dogfight in the mire.”  

Showing off one’s pets is of course nothing new for Korean politicians. Except for Kim Young-sam, every Korean president owned dogs throughout his term, including outgoing President Moon Jae-in.

President Moon’s cat Jjing-Jjing actually became the first “first cat” in South Korean history, and Moon as a candidate also promised to adopt a rescue dog named Tory if he was elected; Tory was later inducted into President Moon’s first-pet family, which includes two Pungsan dogs gifted by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in 2018. 

The campaigns for this presidential election, however, seemed to have elevated the importance of pets and animals in a somewhat bizarre way, with appointments and social-media presence.

In January, Lee’s campaign launched an Animal Rights Committee and appointed three dogs and a cat as the committee’s honorary members, with official certificates issued to their names.

DP member of the National Assembly Ko Minjung, co-chairwoman of the committee and former spokeswoman for the Moon administration, later posted on her Facebook page a series of pictures of cats, dogs and a rabbit under the title “I support Candidate Lee Jae-Myung,” with their names, ages, and reasons for their endorsement of Lee.

Ko’s Facebook posts were soon ridiculed by politicians in opposition parties, including PPP leader Lee Jun-seok, who remarked that “the fundamental principle of animal rights is not using animals as tools, and using animals for political campaigns itself demonstrates a lack of understanding of animal rights.”

While Lee Jun-seok mockingly said during his heated feuds with Ko that he as a party leader had no interest in launching campaigns focused on animals, as humans come first, his party’s campaign prominently featured Yoon’s pets.

Yoon, an owner of seven pets including two stray dogs and three stray cats, periodically expressed his strong affection toward his pets on his Facebook page.

On his YouTube series where Yoon cooks and serves citizens, he said to a YouTuber with eight dogs, “I do not know how I could have endured [the] last 10 years without my dogs.” The campaign also circulated stories such as how Yoon adopted the stray Tory from a shelter where he was a volunteer, and performed 17 surgeries to save Tory instead of euthanizing him as recommended after a car accident.

Yoon also opened a separate pet Instagram account for Tory when he opened his own during the PPP primary last July, probably following the popular trend among young pet owners of opening “sub-accounts” for their pets.

The humorous Instagram account under Tory’s name was filled with puns and satires of Yoon’s quirky habits, which seemed to aim at humanizing the former prosecutor general amid increasingly negative opinions of him.

Tory’s Instagram account, however, closed down after three months as it was seen as mocking people just a few hours after Yoon made a public apology about his earlier remarks. Tory later re-emerged when Yoon created a Twitter account introducing himself as the “father of four pups and three kitties,” which predominantly featured pictures of his pets without any mention of politics. 

Voting blocs

Of course, the importance of pets is not just about reputation management, but it is now directly related to a considerably growing number of votes.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs estimated 6.38 million households (27.7% of the households in the country) own about 8.6 million pets based on a poll conducted in 2020, compared with 4.57 million households in 2015.

In its probably more accurate quinquennial census, Statistics Korea (KOSTAT) also surveyed the number of pets in households for the first time in history to capture societal changes related to a growing number of pets, and it found there were about 3.13 million households (15% of the total) with pets in 2020.

With the victor of the presidential election determined by fewer than 250,000 votes with a margin of mere 0.73% between the two, politicians are likely to continue to court pet owners as a meaningful growing voting bloc.

The fact that three of the four major candidates – Lee Jae-myung, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party before his resignation, and Sim Sang-jung of the progressive Justice Party –  separately joined one of the most popular cat-related YouTube channels with 1.32 million subscribers signifies the growing importance of pet owners in Korean politics. 

Yoon, who will begin his term with more pets than any previous president, is also very likely to have his pets remain as the centerpiece of his public engagement. His office shared pictures of Yoon spending his first weekend as president-elect walking Tory by the Han River, picking up the dog’s waste along the way.

Yoon also reacted to news that outgoing President Moon may not be able to keep the two North Korean Pungsan dogs when he officially step down on May 9, stating, “Dogs should be kept by the owner who raised them. But if they are given to me, I’ll raise them well.”

Pet policy

All the major candidates in the election laid out several campaign promises related to pets, so in theory, pet owners and their pets were expected to gain regardless of results.

Yoon’s campaign promises included creation of an animal services agency, introduction of standardized veterinary services fees, tax exemption and tax deduction on veterinary services, mandatory registration and taxation on cats in exchange for pet insurance benefits, promotion of related service industries, eradication of illegal puppy mills, and expansion of pet parks and playgrounds.

Interesting enough, all the candidates said they hoped to introduce standardized fees for veterinary services and to categorize different services. On the most controversial topic of whether to allow the trade and consumption of dog meat, which stirred controversy during the PPP primary last year due to the Yoon’s incendiary remarks, his policy manifesto briefly mentions that he will push to prohibit dog meat, without providing much detail. 

When the 21st National Assembly was convened about two years ago, Joy, a guide dog for visually impaired member of the National Assembly Kim Ye-ji of the PPP, made history by becoming the first dog allowed to enter the chamber and other meeting rooms, thanks to support across party lines for a change in the rules. This year’s bitter presidential election brings into question of whether the political parties can work together like that during the subsequent legislative period.

The campaigns, however, also presented certain policies on pets that are either very similar or identical to each other. While it might not be as major a topic as amending the constitution, it could be one small area where the Yoon administration and the National Assembly can work together.

Seoho Lee

Seoho Lee recently served as a Korea Studies Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. You can follow him on Twitter @slee_0602.