SEOUL - A South Korean court has outlawed the killing of dogs for meat, in a landmark ruling that animal rights activists said Thursday could pave the way to making eating canines illegal.
The meat has long been a part of South Korean cuisine, with about one million dogs believed to be eaten annually.
But consumption has declined as South Koreans increasingly embrace the idea of dogs as man's best friend rather than livestock, with the practice now something of a taboo among younger generations and pressure from activists mounting.
Even so it remains a legal grey area. Despite no specific ban, authorities have invoked hygiene regulations or animal protection laws that ban cruel slaughter methods to crack down on dog farms and restaurants ahead of international events such as the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Animal rights group Care last year filed complaints against a dog farm operator in Bucheon, accusing him of "killing animals without proper reasons" and violating building and hygiene regulations, and prosecutors later charged him.
He was convicted by the Bucheon City court, which ruled that meat consumption was not a legal reason to kill dogs, and fined 3 million won ($2,700). He waived his right to appeal.
Care lawyer Kim Kyung-eun welcomed the ruling -- made in April but with details only released this week -- telling AFP: "It is very significant in that it is the first court decision that killing dogs for dog meat is illegal itself."
The precedent "paved the way for outlawing dog meat consumption entirely", she added, saying Care planned to file complaints against "many more" dog farmers.
A lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party has introduced a bill to the National Assembly to ban dog meat consumption.
The court decision sparked angry protests from dog farmers, whose premises usually double as slaughter houses as the government does not license abattoirs to kill dogs.
"This is outrageous. We can't accept the ruling that killing of dogs for dog meat consumption amounts to killing animals on a whim," Cho Hwan-ro, a representative from an association of dog farms, said on YTN television.
There are some 17,000 dog farms across the country, Cho said, calling for the government to explicitly legalize dog meat consumption and license dog slaughter houses. "Otherwise, we'll fight to the end," he added.
"Dogs for eating and dogs as pets must be separated," he said, adding they were different breeds, fed differently and raised for different purposes.
"Cows, pigs, chickens and ducks are all raised to be consumed and why not dogs?" he said.