Supreme Court rules Jeju Naval Base Lawful. Park to Formally Announce Presidential Bid Next Week. Senior Security Aide to Lee Offers to Resign over Japan Pact.
As I write this, those are the top stories on South Korea’s main news agency, Yonhap. Seoul’s surprise decision to consider lifting its ban on whaling doesn’t get a mention. Yet look on any international news website (such as Al Jazeera’s) for a story about Korea today, and the chances are it’s this one.
South Korea’s delegate to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama, Park Jeong-seok, was uncompromising. "This is not a forum for moral debate," he reportedly said. "This is a forum for legal debate. As a responsible member of the commission we do not accept any such categorical, absolute proposition that whales should not be killed or caught."
The reaction from anti-whaling groups and governments has been damning. Australia’s prime minister professed herself "disappointed", adding that there was "no excuse for scientific whaling".
If the announcement caught the international community by surprise, the same was true of South Korea’s environmentalists. Choi Ye-yong, vice-chair of the Korea Federation for Environment Movement’s Ocean Committee, told us he felt blindsided by the move. His group has been in constant touch with the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry on the whaling issue – but apparently there was no indication that they would take this step before the bombshell statement in Panama City.
So why the change? The government here has long promised whalers that it would allow the practice to resume once whale stocks recovered. Korea was a year late in adhering to the 1986 international moratorium, but since then no legal whaling has taken place. Fishermen are allowed to sell meat from whales accidentally caught in their nets. Although some have tested the definition of “accidentally”, with coast guard raids turning up very deliberate illegal whalers.
Now, the government believes, Minke whale stocks are back to their pre-moratorium levels. Fishermen, it says, are complaining that it is putting pressure on fish stocks, as the whales eat fish that “should” be for human consumption. “Scientific” whaling, the argument goes, is necessary to get a firmer grasp on whale numbers, and assess exactly what they’re eating.
“It’s just killing whales,” environmentalist Choi tells me, miming sticking a harpoon into a whale’s side. He maintains that whale numbers and eating habits in the 21st century can be accurately monitored with systems using satellites and DNA tracing.
In one corner of Seoul, south of the Han River, we find a very different reaction. The Harim restaurant is one of a handful in the capital that serves whale meat. The most popular dish – steamed slices arranged in a circle – goes for 80 dollars a person.
“People want whale meat,” owner Kim Ho-won tells me. “It’s high in protein and contains unsaturated fat.”
Well, the people in this restaurant certainly do want it. One shakes his fist and gives a thumbs up when he hears about the government’s decision. But whale-eating is hardly a majority pastime. Eighty per cent of it is believed to be consumed in one fishing town – Ulsan – in the far southeast.
Which leaves me with the same question – why do this? Why attract all this international heat? Why risk having Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace dinghies getting themselves tangled up in your fishing fleets?
Perhaps it’s just a sop to the fishing communities from a friendly ministry. Perhaps it’s a symbol of South Korean self-reliance after a raft of free trade agreements have threatened food producers with a flood of cheap imports. Or perhaps the clue is in the lack of news coverage. People here just don’t think it’s that big a deal. So why not?