Korea has unveiled plans to resume hunting whales for research purposes, drawing immediate rebuke from an array of governments and conservationists who suspect the move may be a cover for outlawed commercial whaling.
The government in Seoul announced its intentions this week to the International Whaling Commission. It said the move is aimed at studying the types and amounts of fish consumed by whales. The whaling commission has not yet ruled on the plan.
A U.S. State Department spokesman voiced concern about the lethal scientific research, and said Washington will raise the issue with Korea. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, speaking Thursday, criticized the proposal.
"I am very disappointed by this announcement by Korea. We are completely opposed to whaling, there's no excuse for scientific whaling, and I have instructed our ambassador in Korea to raise this matter today at the highest levels of the Korean government."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key also criticized the Korean plan.
"We think it will be a terrible step in the wrong direction. That's not the right way that we think Korea should be going, and we will be making our feelings strongly felt."
Commercial whaling has been banned globally under a moratorium imposed by the IWC in 1986. However, exceptions have been granted to Japan, Norway and Iceland.
In Seoul, Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Han Hye-jin defended the plan.
"Scientific whaling is the right of members of the IWC. We think the scientific whaling will take place, while we abide by the regulations and procedure decided by the IWC's science committee."
Environmentalists broadly dismiss the term "scientific whaling" as a thinly veiled ruse to harvest whales on a commercial scale. Anti-whaling activists routinely harass Japanese ships engaged in Tokyo's annual whale hunt in the southern Pacific. The adversaries frequently clash violently on the high seas, and at least one activist boat has been sunk in recent years.
Japan claims it hunts whales for research only. But much of the meat from the killed whales ends up in Japanese restaurants and supermarkets.
Korea says it has not yet determined what to do with whale meat from its harvests.