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A groomer trims a dog's fur at an animal clinic in Seoul, South Korea, July 6, 2016. Picture taken on July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

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By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea aims to regulate the increasingly common ownership of pets in a bid to promote an unsupervised sector that the government sees as economic growth opportunity, and to crack down on animal abuse and neglect.

Measures announced on Thursday will enable South Koreans to legally operate services for pets such as animal cafes, hotels and funeral parlours, while imposing stiffer punishment on breeders found using unsanitary or inhumane methods.

Pets were once rare in South Korea, a country where the consumption of dog meat was widespread though it has declined sharply during the rapid modernization of recent decades.

"We know we are a bit late, but we are aiming to become a developed country in terms of the pet industry," Kang Chong-suk, director of the finance ministry's general policy coordination division, said in a telephone interview.

"There were absolutely no regulations and many illegal activities were being carried out."

Nearly 22 percent of South Korean households last year had at least one pet, up from 17.4 percent five years earlier, a trend fuelled by the rise in single-person households.

At the same time, there has been a jump in the number of abandoned pets.

The government expects the measures will help the industry increase revenues from 1.8 trillion won (1 billion pounds) now to 5.8 trillion won in 2020.

Under the plan, animal funeral facilities will be legalised, addressing complaints from pet owners over current law that says dead pets must be discarded, like household rubbish, in plastic garbage bags.

New laws will also make it possible to start pet-related businesses like hotels, cafes and training centres.

Pet cafes, where human customers can mingle with dogs and cats while having a cup of coffee, are increasingly popular in South Korea even though current law forbids the sale of food where animals can roam.

The government will also introduce a veterinary nursing license and encourage insurers to develop more pet insurance policies.

The measures are part of broader efforts to bolster various industries, including halal and kosher food production, the housing market and sports, as the government tries to find more sources of growth.

'TOO MANY PETS'

Fines for abandoning pets will be raised threefold from 1 million won, while government support for animal shelters will be increased.

Last year, 82,000 pets were abandoned or lost in South Korea, straining its 307 shelters, according to the government.

"They should have started this process a long time ago," said Kwon Beom-suk, a veterinarian in Seoul.

"We have too many pets in South Korea even though the pet culture has not matured yet."

Fines will also be increased for unregistered or abusive animal-breeding facilities.

About 1,000 commercial dog breeders are now operating, more than 80 percent illegally, according to the government.

Thursday's announcement comes amid public outrage over television reports showing abuse of dogs at some so-called puppy mills, including non-veterinarians performing crude caesarean sections on pregnant dogs.

Kang said the government's planning preceded the broadcasts.

($1 = 1,154.6700 won)

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel)

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