South Korea: If Japan can hunt whales, so can we

South Korea's bid to resume whaling may be designed more to attract a key voting bloc during an election year than to benefit science. It has been largely condemned by the international community.

Woohae Cho/Reuters
Environmental activists demonstrate with a mock whale, during a protest against the plans of the South Korean government to resume hunting whales for research purpose, in central Seoul on Friday, July 6.

South Korea is submerged in controversy after proposing the resumption of whaling for what it says is scientific research. 

The Seoul government must first receive approval from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) before expeditions can begin. But some analysts say the plan announced earlier this week at a conference in Panama has more to do with domestic politics and economics than science.

“It’s 2012 and it’s election season,” says Jasper Kim, CEO of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group. 

The agricultural sector, which includes fishermen, is an important voting bloc in South Korean politics. The ruling party, which hopes to retain the presidency, could be trying to appeal to fishermen who claim minke whales are eating what would’ve been their catch. 

“From South Korea’s perspective, it’s animal rights versus economic rights. And if South Korea has to choose between the two, 9 out of 10 times it will choose economic rights,” says Mr. Kim.  

It came as a surprise to many observers that South Korea wants to partake in a practice that is an international cause célèbre.  But Kim notes that Seoul feels more confident about asserting its position on the global stage after hosting the 2010 G-20 Summit as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Forum earlier this year.   

“I think they have some [international] political sway, now much more than before,” he says.

Commercial whaling for consumption only gained popularity during the late 19th century and during Japan’s colonization of the peninsula (1910-1945).  The city of Ulsan on the southeast coast was the heart of the South Korean whaling industry until the IWC banned commercial hunting in 1987. Today, Ulsan holds an annual Whale Festival in which hunting expeditions are re-enacted and visitors are encouraged to sample whale meat at local restaurants. 

The IWC allows whale meat to be sold if the animal was accidentally killed, such as in fishing nets.

International standing

Tradition aside, Seoul wants the same rights that Japan has to conduct scientific whaling.  

Comparisons with Japan are used as a leverage tactic in negotiating the terms of US military treaties, says Peter Beck, country representative for the Asia Foundation in Korea.

Many South Koreans may regard disapproval by the IWC as hypocritical. Japan is one of three other countries allowed to hunt whales under international rules. 

“Korea holds Japan as a benchmark. If you offer this to Japan, you need to offer this to us, too,” says Mr. Beck.

Short of IWC rejection, environmental and animal rights groups hope that South Korea, now facing international condemnation, backs off its whaling proposal.

South Koreans are acutely sensitive to how their nation is depicted in foreign media.  During the 1988 Olympics, many South Koreans felt embarrassed about the negative reporting on the nation’s penchant for dog meat. 

In the case of whaling, a “name and shame” campaign could yield results, says Kim of the Asia-Pacific Global Research Group.

“If the controversy gets to a global scale, the South Korean government could figure they are the odd man out and be open to sway.”  

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