(CNN) — Best known for its annual international flower festival, Goyang is one of Seoul's largest satellite cities. But for years, officials struggled to differentiate this city of one million people from its peers.
The local government had multiple social media accounts, but no one seemed to care much about the content they were producing. Something had to be done.
"How about a cat to represent the city's character?" someone asked half-jokingly during a meeting in 2013, noting the similarities between the name of the city (Goyang) and the Korean word for cat (goyang-yi).
Choi Seo-young, a public relations official who handled the city's social media, suggested they test the idea on the city's very unpopular Facebook page with a cat she drew on a piece of paper.
From joke to reality
In South Korea, cats were once considered crafty creatures that bring misfortune. But Choi, among the youngest on the team, wanted to give them a chance.
Goyang's Facebook account had about 2,000 followers at the time. But just 24 hours after they swapped the profile picture to a cat named "Goyang-goyang-yi," social media users went into a frenzy. The mascot was an instant success, with people both from within the city and around the country wanting to interact with the feline character.
Today, the city's social media platforms, Facebook included, now have well over half a million followers. Images of Goyang-goyang-yi even appear in the city hall's lobby.
A cat poster welcomes visitors and a statue of a masked cat reminds people to keep their face masks on. There's even a "photo zone" where visitors can pose for a picture with Goyang-goyang-yi.
Goyang city official Choi Seo-young poses with the cat she helped design.
The locals have embraced Goyang-goyang-yi as well.
"In the past, there was a saying in Korea that cats should not be kept with babies because cats are thieves and demons," says Kwon Ji-young, a café worker and long-time city resident. "But those days are gone and I'm more familiar with cats now. The city's announcements feel more friendly now that they're coming from a cat."
"The city had a serious and slightly boring feel to it, but that has been lifted now that it's using a cat," agrees restaurant owner Lee Yeong-sook. "When I see messages from Goyang-goyang-yi, it makes me smile and I can remember them more easily."
Cats dominate social media across Asia and the rest of the world -- and South Korea is no exception.
Heek, an all-white cat living on the popular South Korea resort island of Jeju, has more than 190,000 followers on Instagram. The stray cat's fortunes turned around when he found a home with a single resident of Jeju, Lee Sina.
The feline star doesn't need to do much to get fans' attention. Pictures of him just lying on a table, walking on the wall or looking totally oblivious to the world score thousands of likes. Lee published a book about Heek in 2017 that ranked in the top 100 books nationwide for two weeks at South Korea's major online bookstore, Yes24.
The newfound popularity of cats is often attributed to modern lifestyles and the increase of single-person households in South Korea. Cats are known to require less attention and care than dogs. Many people say watching cat videos gives them a sense of emotional healing.
Park Jung-yoon, a South Korean celebrity vet, believes that the rising popularity of cats is due to a change in Korean society.
"People used to like dogs for their unconditional loyalty, pack animal nature and respect for order, somewhat similar to what South Korean society used to expect from its members. But now people have become more individualistic, and cats' independent nature and outsider-like image may have become more appealing to people."
South Korean cat owners often refer to themselves as butlers, a term that neatly captures the power dynamic between the owner and the cat.
A survey issued by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2019 reveals cats are preferred by those who live in single-person households. Another survey released last month shows that single-person households in the country now account for more than 30 percent of all households in the country.
The popularity of cats among single-person households has even led to special home designs.
Pet Heim is a housing developer that targets pet owners. The company's promotional video shows a Persian Blue cat asking, "Hey butler, have you found our home yet?" and goes on to introduce an apartment equipped with a cat door, cat tower, special cat bathtub and more.
Park Sang-wook founded South Korea's first newspaper dedicated only to cats.
The reputation makeover
Until just a decade ago, cats were mostly disliked in Korea. Stray cats, called "thief cats" for their habit of ripping through plastic bags to get scraps of food inside, were considered unhygienic germ carriers.
"Even 10 years ago, people thought of cats as only good for catching mice," says Park Sang-wook, editor of Yaong-yi, South Korea's first newspaper dedicated to cats, which began publication in 2015.
"We could see cats kept on a leash in shops or restaurants for that purpose. I can certainly feel the change. I interviewed many people who used to be afraid of cats until 3-4 years ago but since the social perception of the cats changed, many say they have come to like cats."
If not used as mouse hunters, there was no reason for people to keep them, so many cats lived in the streets. Cats were meant to be born, survive on ripping food rubbish bags people left outside their homes, and die when they get old or sick in the streets.
But things have started to change visibly. Park says the number of exhibitions on pets used to be under 10 until 2016 but that number had increased by four or five fold by 2017 and 2018.
"Many companies that were focused on holding wedding or baby expos have switched to pet expos," says Park.
South Korea's fertility rate is the lowest in the world, standing at 0.84 in 2020. This compares to 1.73 in the US and 1.42 in Japan in 2018, according to the most recent figures available from the OECD.
There are cat goods shops popping up just like the ones for K-pop or K-drama star goods shops.
"Cats are like celebrities now," Park says.
A cafe owner in Seoul, Noh Hee-jeong says she and her cat Eve clicked because they were "similar in personality."
"I hear from people that I look tough and strong but I'm soft inside and I think Eve is just like me," she says.
Since Eve moved in with her, she started to care for the cats in the neighborhood with other restaurant and cafe owners. They feed stray cats and have meetings to decide what to do when they spot sick ones.
She launched a campaign called "we're not things" and is trying to change South Korean law which still views pets as possessions, making it hard to punish those who abuse their pets.
Not everyone has fallen for cats... yet
The high popularity of cats led to more people getting cats as pets and then to a higher number of stray cats as some abandon their new companions. Many strays then become victims of abuse or illness and end up in shelters. RAY, established in 2018, is one of many new cat shelters in Seoul.
"Animals were able to survive in their own ecosystem but with all these developments, they need our help. It's time for humans to look after the animals now,``says Kim Eun-hee, the founder of RAY.
The Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency launched a project in 2016 to catch stray cats, neuter them and return them back to where they used to live -- all using government funds.
However, it's not enough and many shelters are way over capacity. RAY is no exception with about 90 cats dwelling in a small two-story building in the northern side of Seoul. Kim hopes she can move to a bigger facility where the center can grow to rescue more cats.
Many avid cat lovers say more protection for pets and stray cats is definitely needed but no one can deny the cats' status has been elevated beyond recognition.
Goyang city's official Choi recalled she had "never dreamed of a cat becoming an official character of the city because of the cat's unpopular image." And that was less than ten years ago.
South Korea is well known for its fast-paced society -- but even by these standards, this successful makeover of cats seems surprising. From "dirty thieves in the streets" to pampered pets and social media stars, South Korean cats may be going through even more rapid changes than the country itself.