Korean officials might not have expected their plan to restart whaling for “research purposes” to prompt such vehement international protests.
The plan, announced at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Panama last week, triggered criticism from anti-whaling nations and global conservationist groups. They suspected it might be a pretext for commercial whaling, with Korea following the example of Japan. Through a loophole in the commission’s 1986 moratorium on whaling that permits lethal research on whales, Japan has hunted the giant sea mammals, with their meat then going to consumption.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was “very disappointed” by Korea’s announcement and John Key, her counterpart from New Zealand, called it “a terrible step in the wrong direction.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington is concerned about Korea’s announcement and plans to discuss it with the Korean government.
Environmental groups at home and abroad called on Korea to scrap the plan, which an official of the World Wildlife Fund described as “a thinly veiled attempt to conduct commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research.”
In the face of growing pressure, Seoul officials stepped back from their initial stance.
The chief Korean delegate to the IWC meeting told local media last Friday that Seoul would not push to resume whaling over objections from the international community.
His remarks were softened from his delegation’s insistence that Korea’s future whaling plan, which would be submitted to a scientific committee of the IWC, did not need foreign approval.
Seoul’s move seemed mainly motivated by fishermen’s complaints that the growing whale population is causing them an annual loss worth 438 billion won ($383 million) per year in damage to their fishing equipment and fish consumption by whales.
To some objective observers, however, the Korean delegation’s argument did not sound persuasive enough to vindicate their case that killing a small number of whales is necessary to exactly know the amount and types of fish consumed by whales.
If we accept their insistence on whaling for research purposes, to our regret, what seems more reasonable are suggestions by some international experts that Korea could carry out an effective study by using whales that are accidentally caught in fishermen’s nets.
Some 100 whales, most of them minkes which the country is targeting for its research whaling, are netted accidentally every year in its waters, with the unusually high rate of “bycatch” raising suspicions among activists that they are sometimes deliberately killed.
It also appeared beside the point for the chief Korean delegate to comment that consumption of whale meat “dates back to historical times” in his country.
Amid the international uproar, it remains uncertain whether the scientific committee of the IWC would eventually judge that Korea’s request fit the purposes of research whaling, which are limited to helping preserve the sea mammals and other maritime creatures.
Even if the IWC gives the go-ahead, international criticism would still run high, making Korea feel too burdened to ignore it and resume whaling.
In that case, the controversial move would only result in earning Korea a negative reputation that it could have avoided.
It appears that Seoul officials should have been more cautious in going for making public its decision to resume whaling. Officials from the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry, who formed the delegation to the IWC meeting, might have had to hold prior consultation with the Foreign Ministry, the Environment Ministry and other government agencies which are more informed of the international sentiment on the issue.
The whaling case should serve as a lesson for Korean officials to be more careful in handling issues related to international movements that are bound with a stronger sense of global solidarity than they think.