Pangs of newfound puppy love hit South Korea

In a country better known for dog soup, people are discovering the joys of canine companionship.

For Oh Sun Hwa, there are few sights more endearing than her puppies scampering around her apartment in northeastern Seoul.

"I always wanted to have a dog, but I came from a big family, so we couldn't manage it," she says. "Now, because I'm on my own, I can have one." Actually, four.

A sales clerk at a boutique, Ms. Oh is part of a new generation of pet owners here: South Korea, notorious as "the country where they eat dogs," is in the midst of a full-fledged dog boom. Meanwhile, connoisseurs of poshintang, or dog soup, are threatening to become a public-relations embarrassment, given South Korea's co-hosting of next year's World Cup soccer championships.

Oh has set up house with a miniature schnauzer, a beagle, a cocker spaniel, and a Siberian husky. "As soon as I come home, they all come running because they're so happy to see me," Oh says. "They give us so much love."

New businesses are sprouting up to cater to canines, offering dog apparel, customized beds, and portrait photography. Diminutive Yorkshire terriers and Maltese puppies have become must-have fashion accessories among trendy teens and 20-somethings.

Half a dozen "dog cafes" have opened in the Seoul area in the past year, serving four-legged customers shredded chicken, beef jerky, and other treats - and coffee and tea to their human companions.

To capitalize on the dog craze, a subsidiary of the LG Group conglomerate recently began offering a "pet dog love" credit card that customers can use for discounts at local pet stores.

"In the past, people couldn't understand the concept of raising a pet inside the house," says Kang Ja Kyoung, who runs one of many dog-themed websites that have emerged in South Korean cyberspace. "They thought that dogs were messy and that you could catch diseases from them. There are still some people who think like that, but things are changing."

South Korea's canine pet population is estimated to be from 1.5 million to 2 million. According to the Korea International Trade Association, imports of foreign pet food - the overwhelming majority of which is dog food - jumped 644 percent between 1991 and 2000. Despite the recent economic slump, imports during the first three quarters of this year are up 33 percent from the same period last year.

Various trends are driving the newfound passion for dogs, observers say. Economic growth before the Asian financial crisis in 1997 led to a sharp rise in incomes throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, encouraging many Koreans to devote more attention to hobbies and recreational activities.

In addition, changes in family life have left a companionship gap at home. Traditional extended families, in which three generations lived under the same roof, are largely a thing of the past, increasingly replaced by nuclear families with fewer children. The greater frequency of divorce and a rise in the number of young, single Koreans living on their own have reinforced the yearning for companion animals.

The globalizing influence of the Internet, and a large increase during the past decade in the number of Koreans traveling overseas, has resulted in a dramatic shift in attitudes toward dogs.

"Rather than thinking of dogs as pets, Koreans used to think of them primarily as farm animals, like cows, chickens, and pigs," says Lee Jin Sung, head of the Korean Canine Club. "They were mostly raised to guard property and for food." But now, "they've become members of the family."

But with more dogs have come a few problems. Many dogs are bred in cramped, disease-incubating puppy mills. And because small equals cute in the minds of many consumers, some pet stores sell puppies before they reach two or three months, the minimum age recommended by veterinarians.

Due to the high number of immature or sick puppies that die soon after purchase, the South Korean Finance Ministry's consumer policy division two years ago began requiring pet stores to give customers full or half credit toward another dog if a puppy dies within a week of purchase. The ministry has plans to extend the protection period to two weeks.

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