South Korea has said it will start whaling under a loophole in a global moratorium that allows scientific research, outraging conservationist nations by using the same tactic as Japan.
The country came under pressure Thursday from outraged governments and environmentalists to scrap plans to kill whales under a "scientific" research programme denounced as a sham.
At sometimes heated talks of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Panama on Wednesday, South Korea said it would announce later how many whales it would kill and when but insisted that it did not need foreign approval.
Kang Joon-Suk, South Korea's head envoy, 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.
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Whale meat remains popular in the South Korean coastal town of Ulsan, which serves meat from whales "accidentally" caught in nets. Activists have voiced suspicion that whales are often killed deliberately under the guise of accidents.
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.
"I'm very disappointed by this announcement by South Korea. We are completely opposed to whaling, there's no excuse for scientific whaling," said Julia Gillard, Australia's Prime Minister told reporters.
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully said there was no need to harpoon whales to conduct effective research.
"[It] will have no more credibility than the so-called scientific programme conducted by Japan, which has long been recognised as commercial whaling in drag," he said.
New Zealand's commissioner, Gerard van Bohemen, charged that South Korea would also be putting whale populations at risk and said that Japan had not contributed to science after years of expeditions.
South Korea's plan is "unnecessary and borders on the reckless. New Zealand is strongly opposed to Korea's proposal," he said.
"We were taken by surprise by this decision. Our office is being flooded by phone calls from campaigners abroad, including those in New Zealand, Britain and Australia," Greenpeace Korea marine campaigner Han Jeong-Hee said.
In a statement, Greenpeace described scientific whaling as "just thinly disguised commercial whaling".
"This is the 21st century, and it has been proven time and time again that we don't need to kill whales to study them," it said.
Anti-whaling activists regularly harass Japanese vessels engaging in their annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean off Australia and Antarctica, with the two sides sometimes clashing violently. At least one activist boat has sunk in recent years.
Monaco's envoy Frederic Briand, a marine scientist and veteran conservationist, said that the Commission's allowance for scientific killing reflected research methods from when the body was set up in 1946.
"There is no doubt in my mind that scientists from Korea could well take advantage of the non-lethal techniques," he said.
South Korean delegate Park Jeong-Seok voiced anger at the foreign criticism. He said that Seoul did not need to inform about its whaling but was 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 Commission's rules, nations can conduct lethal research on whales, with the meat then going to consumption.
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.
"We've submitted a proposal to the IWC's Scientific Committee to resume scientific whaling in our waters and will await the committee's assessment," said a Korean official at the Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
"If it says it is not adequate in their assessment of the legitimacy of scientific research, we'll make further preparations."
South Korea carried out scientific whaling for one season after the 1986 moratorium went into effect.
A report at the time by the IWC's science committee said that South Korea killed 69 minke whales and provided "no information" of scientific use. Japan also submitted a 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.
Donna Petrachenko, the Australian envoy, said that Japan's proposal, if approved, would mean "completely undermining the moratorium."
While not killing minke whales, Japan each year hunts thousands of other cetaceans unregulated by the International Whaling Commission off its coasts - most notoriously dolphins, which the western town of Taiji spears to death.
Russian delegate Valentin Ilyashenko voiced understanding for Japan's proposal as he explained his experience going for dinner in Panama, which has a strong US influence.
"Every visitor I see at restaurants asks for traditional Panamanian food, and as a rule they get a hamburger or pizza. I believe it's important to keep traditions and thus I support Japan's proposal," he said.