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Korean whaling: looking deeper than posturing and ignorance

South Korea’s announcement to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama last week that it would permit “scientific” whaling in accordance with Article VIII of the IWC Convention surprised…

Minke whale breaching: Australian delegates to the International Whaling Commission should not have been surprised by South Korea’s embrace of sanctioned whaling, which we should accept given certain provisos. Flickr/Martin Cathrae

South Korea’s announcement to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama last week that it would permit “scientific” whaling in accordance with Article VIII of the IWC Convention surprised many delegates, including Australia’s, but it shouldn’t have.

For centuries, South Koreans, like Japanese, have eaten whale meat, especially the members of fishing communities along the eastern coast bordering the Sea of Japan. Following the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, the trade went underground, and catches were camouflaged as “accidental” when whales were supposedly entangled in fishing nets. While the Korean government claimed to have strictly banned whaling, subjecting transgressors to strong punishment, the legal loophole of inadvertency resulted in undeclared harvests of minke whales, making up perhaps one third of the world’s total cetacean catch. By no means all these whales were caught accidentally. Some observers darkly hint that most of the catch was taken by criminal gangs in Korea using specially adapted whaling boats.

Korean fishermen in the port of Taean bring in a minke whale found caught in nets. They are allowed to sell the meat. AAP/EPA/Yonhap News South Korea

South Korea’s delegate to the IWC meeting in Panama, Kang Joon-suk, justifies his country’s new policy using the dubious assurance that the main (or only) species to be targeted will be minkes, and only from Korean coastal waters. He claimed that the minke population has exploded and severely depleted Korean fish stocks. It was time to give Korean fishing communities a break.

With her eye firmly on the sensitivities of the Australian electorate towards whaling, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard immediately protested against the new policy, saying that Australia was strongly opposed to the resumption of whaling by any country. But it is unlikely that her protest will have any more than the slightest adverse effect on Australia’s mutually-beneficial relations with Korea.

Apart from the evangelical activities of a handful of Australian missionaries in 19th century Korea, the country did not figure on Australian foreign policy radar or in the minds of Australians until well after the Pacific War. This was not altogether surprising since from 1910 to 1945 its identity was suppressed under the stifling embrace of the Japanese empire. One could claim, as some Australian and Korean politicians do, that bilateral relations really began with Australian participation on the American side in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. But from Canberra’s perspective, this had much more to do with paying defence insurance premiums to the US than any genuine concern for defending “freedom” in the fledgling Korean republic.

The real substance in the relationship began with trade. It gradually dawned on a growing number of Australian mining companies and the Canberra trade bureaucracy in the 1970s that South Korean industries such as shipbuilding, construction, heavy machinery, and motor vehicles, were developing as voracious an appetite for our thermal and metallurgic coal, iron ore, alumina, and non-ferrous metals, as had Japanese manufacturers a decade before. And just as with Japan, the mandarins in Canberra wisely decided that ballast had to be added to the Korea-Australian bilateral trade relationship to give it substance and stability. So bilateral treaties were negotiated, sister-city relationships established, and ministers - both federal and state - began frequent pilgrimages to Seoul. The 1988 Olympic Games in that city spurred Australians on to greater efforts of friendship and conviviality.

Additional official gravitas was contributed by presidential and prime ministerial visit both ways. Park Chung-hee, [Roh Tae-woo, Kim Dae-jung, and Lee Myung-bak have all been here. Bob Hawke signed the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation agreement in Seoul in 1989, and Julia Gillard visited there as recently as 2011. Another solid characteristic of the relationship is the Korean community in Australia. With close to 150,000 hard-working and productive individuals, it is the sixth biggest Korean community anywhere in the world.

No doubt there will be some moral posturing by Australian governments of both persuasions about Korean whaling, just as there has been towards the Japanese whaling industry. Gillard instructed Ambassador Sam Gerovich to protest to the Foreign Ministry in Seoul. The Federal Employment and Workplace Minister Bill Shorten reportedly told Channel 7 that if diplomacy didn’t work, the government might take South Korea to the International Court of Justice. Opposition spokesman Joe Hockey said the opposition supported a diplomatic approach.

Sea Shepherd could up the ante, as they are threatening to do, by sending a vessel to the Sea of Japan to harass Korean whalers. If they do, crew members could expect rougher treatment than they experienced in the Antarctic from the Japanese. The Koreans have a very efficient fleet of around 50 maritime patrol vessels, and they could not be expected to be particularly tolerant towards interference by any foreign ships in what they regard as their own maritime backyard.

We should accept localised whaling off Korea and in Korean waters without becoming too moralistic about it. I do suggest several provisos, however: the Koreans should prove their claim about the growth in minke numbers; they should prove that the minkes are depleting their fish stocks; they should be transparent about their “scientific” catch and accurate about numbers caught, and they should confine their catch to minkes.

The author was Australia’s ambassador to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) from 1987 to 1989.

Comments welcome below.