Defiant South Korea vows to restart whaling

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A Minke whale and calf rise to the surface in this photo taken from a Bass and Flinders whale watching boat off the coast near Sydney on June 8, 2010.

South Korea said that it would start whaling under a loophole in a global moratorium that allows scientific research, outraging conservationist nations by using the same tactic as Japan.

At sometimes heated talks of the International Whaling Commission in Panama, South Korea said it would announce later how many whales it would kill and when but insisted that it did not need foreign approval.

South Korea's head envoy Kang Joon-Suk said consumption of whale meat "dates back to historical times" in his country and that the minke whale population had recovered since a 1986 global moratorium went into effect.

"Legal whaling has been strictly banned and subject to strong punishments, though the 26 years have been painful and frustrating for the people who have been traditionally taking whales for food," he told the conference.

Kang said South Korea would conduct whaling in its own waters -- in contrast to Japan, which infuriates Australia and New Zealand by killing hundreds of whales a year under the guise of research in Antarctic waters.

New Zealand charged that South Korea would also be putting whale populations at risk and said Japan's years of expeditions had not contributed to science. Australia invited South Korea to study ways of non-lethal research.

South Korea's plan is "unnecessary and borders on the reckless. New Zealand is strongly opposed to Korea's proposal," its commissioner, Gerard van Bohemen, told the conference.

Ryan Wulff, the acting US deputy commissioner, said the United States opposed killing whales for research in principle and voiced concern for the so-called J-stock of the ocean giants in the northern Pacific.

"The only stock that they could be realistically engaging with in their waters is J-stock and that stock is in severe trouble already due to the excessive amount of removals every year due to bycatch," Wulff told AFP.

Whale meat -- from whales "accidentally" caught in nets -- is popular in the Korean coastal town of Ulsan. South Korea's unusually high rate of bycatch has raised suspicions among activists that whales are sometimes deliberately killed.

"If they wanted to conduct research, they could just use the bycatch. This is a thinly veiled attempt by Korea to conduct commercial whaling," said Wendy Elliott, head of the WWF conservationist group's delegation.

South Korean delegate Park Jeong-Seok voiced anger at the foreign criticism. He said that Seoul did not need to inform others about scientific whaling and was only doing so "in the spirit of trust, good faith and transparency."

"As a responsible member of the Commission, we do not accept any such categorical, absolute proposition that whales should not be killed or caught," he said.

"This is not a forum for moral debate, this is a forum for legal debate," Park said. "Such kind of moral preaching is not relevant or appropriate in this forum."

Under the rules of the Commission dating back to 1946, nations can conduct lethal research on whales and then consume the meat.

Norway and Iceland are the only nations that defy the moratorium entirely. Iceland also used to describe its whaling as scientific but shifted its position in 2006 and said it was commercial in nature.

South Korea carried out scientific whaling for one season after the 1986 moratorium went into effect. A report at the time by the International Whaling Commission's science committee said that South Korea killed 69 minke whales and provided "no information" of scientific use.

Japan submitted a separate proposal Wednesday to resume the hunt of minke whales off its coast, but did not seek a vote after strong opposition by anti-whaling nations.

"The IWC's commercial whaling moratorium has caused us and our communities great distress for a quarter of a century," Yoshiichi Shimomichi, head of the Japan Small-Type Whaling Commission, told the conference.

Australian envoy Donna Petrachenko said that Japan's proposal, if approved, would mean "completely undermining the moratorium."

Japan each year kills thousands of cetaceans near its coasts -- most notoriously dolphins, which are speared to death in the town of Taiji -- but not species such as minke covered by the International Whaling Commission.

The Commission, which meets until Friday, is also considering a proposal by Denmark to authorize indigenous whaling in Greenland after quotas expire at the end of the year.

Australia has accused Denmark of bad faith, saying it promised in 2010 to cut back on its overall hunt in return for Greenland being allowed to kill humpback whales, which are renowned their their complex communications.

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