Feature: Why Does Korea Want to Whale Now?

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BUSAN, South Korea – Much like Jonah ending up in the belly of the whale, South Korea has itself been consumed by a public relations leviathan following the recent proposal for ‘scientific research’ whaling along its coastal waters.

Unlike Jonah, the Korean ordeal will likely last longer than three days and nights in the belly of the beast—and leaders in Seoul walked into their whale voluntarily. The question is why?

It all started last week at an International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Panama where a South Korean delegation led by Dr. Kang Joon-suk announced his country’s intent to join the maligned trio of Iceland, Norway and Japan in research whaling.

Reading from a prepared statement, Kang said, The proposed scientific research program is designed to analyze and accumulate biological and ecological data on the minke whales migrating off the Korean Peninsula.

The proposal was immediately slammed by non-whaling countries and international animal rights groups. Officials from the highest levels of government chimed in with their disappointment and shock at the unexpected move by Seoul.

Perhaps the most fervent (and creative) response was that of South Korean anti-whaling activists. During a post-Panama protest in Seoul they dressed like whale researchers and pretended to slash a mock-up of a baby whale with a chainsaw and pound it with a hammer. Even more demeaning were the cardboard crosses that showed the flags of South Korea and their much hated neighbor Japan side-by-side in the crosshairs of guilt.

As pointed to directly by Kang, the driving force behind South Korea’s call for research was the port city of Ulsan, where local fishermen claim the minke whale is gobbling up their catch. The only way to prove it, according to the the government, is to cut the whales open and have a look inside.

Kang spoke directly to the fisherman’s claims saying: This is because they are experiencing disturbances in their fishing activities due to frequent occurrences of cetaceans in their fishing grounds and an increasing number of minke whales are eating away large amount of fish stocks which should be consumed by human being [sic].’

The government proposal to the IWC also noted that the country has a long cultural tradition of consuming whale meat, saying the last 26 years (since the 1986 ban) have been painful and frustrating for people who once regularly caught whales for meat.

The government’s claim that this is a matter of respecting local culture is—pardon the pun—very fishy. Is the pain and frustration about depleted numbers of fish stock and cultural traditions or about the chance to catch more whales at immensely greater profit?

The average 18-20 foot whale ‘accidentally’ caught in a fisherman’s net or found dead in open waters will earn around US$100,000 at the local market. How’s that for a day’s work? Along the coast the minke whale is often referred to as a lottery catch.

Though this is the first time such a global outcry has sprung forth from anti-whaling activists, this is not the first time the government in Seoul has sought to have the ban lifted to appease local profiteers on the coast. The most recent bid was in 2009. At that time the government spoke not in terms of science, coastal traditions or culture, but in prideful boasts of profit and competition with the Japanese.

Before the ban, South Korea had bigger whaling vessels than Japan did. But now, there is not a single whaler left,’ an official from the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries told the Korea Times. We are in a situation where we cannot completely ignore steady calls from fishermen in Ulsan and other southwestern regions.’

Science and Cultural Tradition or Money and Votes?

Ban or no ban, whales are still being harvested ‘accidentally’ and at least half of the overall take by illegal poaching.

According to the government, there are roughly 150 whales a year caught in nets or found dead and then distributed legally per legal regulations. Yet, it is estimated that more than 300 whales are being served in the about 200 licensed whale meat restaurants across the country.

If people want to eat whales, who am I to object? I annually consume at least one cow, a couple of pigs and dozens of chickens, so I have no right to judge. I only ask that the Korean whaling lobby (and any other whaling lobbies for that matter) spare us the talk of scientific research and cultural tradition.

Granted, if culture were a worthy deciding factor (it’s not), Korea certainly has a strong case. The port city of Ulsan has the world’s oldest cultural claim on sustenance whaling, which dates back 8,000 years, evidenced by ancient rock art showing whales being harpooned, as well as unearthed piles of whale bones testifying to their consumption.

But who can seriously believe this is the primary driving force for wanting to directly increase the whale harvest?

The ‘scientific research claim holds very little sea water as well. Fisherman off the coast of Ulsan and Pohang are already ‘accidentally’ snaring or finding an average of three whales every week—a more than adequate slice of the minke population to gauge how much of the fish stock they are consuming before the whales are consumed in local eateries.

As far as electoral maneuvering, the proposal to the IWC by South Korea’s ruling party could not have been better timed. By bringing this up during the heat of the Korean presidential election, it could garner the conservative ruling party more votes from the agricultural sector, which includes fishermen. Those groups hold great sway as an extremely vocal voting bloc in South Korean politics.

Worry Not for the Whales; This is Probably Not Going to Stick

Fortunately for the whales, Korea is one of the more sensitive countries when it comes to its global image. The global public outcry and the protests of its own people will likely leave things as business as usual.

Even the government’s carefully worded proposal to the IWC left them with an out should the whaling protection body decide to deny Korea’s petition for expanded coastal whaling rights. This leads us right back to the theory of an electoral ploy to get more votes from the rural areas by showing a concern for their plight and removing some of the tarnish carried by the ruling party over perceived kowtowing to larger powers.

We’ll see come election time if this tactic worked. And we’ll know soon enough whether Korea will increase its harvest through ‘scientific’ means regardless of the IWC response. My suspicion is that both are unlikely.

Of one thing I am certain. We should all offer our deepest sympathies to the folks over at Korea’s Committee on Nation Branding, who are no doubt yanking a fair amount of their hair out over this move by the government and its effect on Korea’s global standing.


You can read Seoul’s official request to the IWC here.

Historically related article: Japan and Norway block UN Role in Anti-Whaling

A look at Korea’s whaling origins (via the BBC).

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