UK United Kingdom

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.

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. Ieyasu Tokugawa


    Adjunct Professor, this was a surprisingly rational discussion of the [Korean] whaling situation, by Australian standards.

    However, I must take issue with a couple of points.

    Firstly, why should the Koreans prove their claims with regards to increased minke numbers? Minke whales have never been endangered. Today, they are listed as being of "Least Concern" by the ICUN. There is no classification of lesser conservation worry than that. So given that sustainiability is objectively a non-issue…

    Read more
    1. Michael Hay


      In reply to Ieyasu Tokugawa

      1986 is a long time ago and the IWC should realize that its moratorium on commercial whaling is out of date. The resolution should be rescinded and in its place be a quota of total whales (by species) allowed to be harvested annually. The purpose of the IWC would then be to monitor the annual catch.
      The rabid Sea Shepherd would then find its activities to be illegal and a level of sanity would be returned to the high seas.

    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Ieyasu Tokugawa

      Ieyasu Tokugawa: you see what happens when you encourage the ignorant to burn Buddhist temples? What starts with mere vandalism ends in a regime unashamed at eating sentient beings, ignorant of the common nature in all of us, causing terror to animals. Put aside your greedy god and read again, or for the first time, the Lankavatara Sutra before you preach the logic the market to people who are weary of it.

      There are many South Koreans who are as nauseated by whaling as Australians. The difference, though, between South Korea and Australia is that those Australians whose lives are opposed to cruelty and the wanton killing of animals do not live in fear of their homes and buildings being burned to the ground.

    3. Roderick Campbell


      In reply to Ieyasu Tokugawa

      In answer to your questions, mighty shogun...

      1&2. While minkes as a species may be of least concern, specific populations of them may not be, so justification of their status seems a good idea.

      2&3. Korean whaling, if permitted at all, should at least be limited to Korean waters, as high seas whaling affects cetacean populations which visit other countries' waters, many of which have cetacean watching tourism industries of far greater value than Korean whaling. Neighbours Japan, China and…

      Read more
    4. Chris Butler-STroud

      CEO WDCS

      In reply to Ieyasu Tokugawa

      As Roderick mentions, we need to look at the various populations of minkes in such proposals as well as the wider arguments about whether this is a good or bad idea. In fact a lot of the 'catch' off Korea is from the 'J' Stock that is highly endangered and would be placed under immense pressure if the ROK started whaling.

      Indeed, in 2010, the Institute of Cetacean Research, Uslan, Republic of Korea published a paper stating that, 'Because of the status of this population, it is urgently necessary…

      Read more
  2. Bjorki Leirvik


    The idea of allowing peoples who have utilized whale meat and blubber over centuries for food to hunt in their own territorial waters has merit. It seems somewhat unusual that Australia protests so loudly at the use of a few animals for food when it culls millions of Kangaroos each year and doesn’t eat them, complete waste.

    1. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Bjorki Leirvik

      Bjorki Leirvik - can you not find an ecological difference between whales and kangaroos?

  3. Tim Paton

    Automotive Engineer

    I interpreted Korea's move as being a diplomatic favour to Japan.

    If Japan is standing alone as the "rogue state" who operate a commercial whaling industry under the banner of "scientific research", it's easy to denounce them for it. If South Korea does the same thing, it is somewhat normalised in the eyes of the world.

    Who knows what they pay back is. Diplomacy is all about scratching backs. Japan now owes one... or perhaps is no longer owed one by Korea.

    That there is a domestic market for whale meat is almost a coincidence, in my opinion.

  4. Lisa Ann Kelly


    Oh, brother. When does this madness end? Blah blah blah about "utilizing" whale meat and blubber, blah blah blah about whale species "of least concern." WHO THE HELL cares about proving which whales are depleting fish stocks?!?

    What is this cerebral claptrap? Humans are still "allowed" to kill whales? What the @!#!*#!??? Are you all so caught up in your own navel gazing that you don't see the big picture?

    I don't give a rat's ass which country is killing whales or what their specious justifications are. Humans need to stop with the slaughter. Period. One of you actually advocates killing humpbacks? Are you all nuts? Not one iota of common sense among you.

    1. Chris Butler-STroud

      CEO WDCS

      In reply to Lisa Ann Kelly

      PS. The Fisheries department for the ROK does not appear to speak for the ROK when it comes to this issue.

      The opposition in the South Korean press and from NGOs, such as Birds Korea and others, is a clear indication that this is not a West vs. East issue, but that it is Koreans themselves who are speaking out against this terrible idea and that this appears to be resulting in the ROK Government now withdrawing its threat to resume whaling.

      Whaling is an archaic business that is dying on its feet. The sooner it ends the better for the whales, the oceans and the people involved.