Photo: Moon Jae-in with one of the Pungsan dogs at the Blue House, c. 2018. Credit: Office of the President.
A storied tradition of South Korean politics is that when a conservative president is in trouble, conservative news outlets tend to break trivial yet sensational news stories to distract the public. Typically these involve celebrity sex or drug scandals - but in coming to the rescue of President Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 from the fallout caused by the Itaewon disaster that killed 157, the Chosun Ilbo 조선일보 outdid itself.
On November 7, the leading conservative newspaper ran an exclusive story that former President Moon Jae-in 문재인 전 대통령 would “abandon 파양” the two dogs gifted him by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 김정은. The sensationalistic wording (evoking the image of the dogs being heartlessly cast away at a highway rest stop), combined with Moon’s reputation as an animal lover, provoked a strong reaction. The liberal former president, known to be an exceedingly careful speaker, issued an unusually strong statement on his Facebook page, criticizing “a suspicious article from a certain newspaper that instantly muddied up the issue.”
At issue is that the dogs in question - named Gomi 고미 and Songgang 송강, and a puppy named Daun 다운 - are not pets, but pieces of the presidential records that legally belong to the Presidential Archives 대통령기록물관. Gomi and Songgang are rare Pungsan dogs 풍산개, a native breed of North Korea often depicted as a counterpart to South Korea’s famous Jindo dogs 진돗개. Kim Jong Un gifted them to Moon in September 2018 to celebrate the third inter-Korean summit between the two leaders. The dogs thus became a part of the presidential record, as Moon received them in his capacity as the president.
Upon his election, Yoon Suk-yeol - himself known to be a dog lover - suggested that Moon continue to raise Gomi and Songgang, and promised a change in the regulations to allow Moon to serve as custodian of these particular pieces of the presidential record. This change never came. The Interior Ministry 행정안전부 issued a proposal to amend the regulations for the Presidential Records Act 대통령기록물법 in May, but the Yoon administration has thus far declined to act on the proposal.
With the legality of his continued possession of the dogs cast into question, Moon proposed to return the three dogs to the custody of the government - a move that Chosun Ilbo described as “abandoning” them. But even as Moon said he would “greatly welcome it if I could adopt them,” he has good reason to be cautious about the legal status of presidential records. In 2008, Lee Myung-bak 이명박’s first legal attack against Roh Moo-hyun 노무현 in the early days of the prominent liberal’s ex-presidency was to claim that Roh violated the Presidential Records Act by taking copies of presidential records to his residence for purposes of writing a memoir.