PANAMA CITY — South Korea's plan to become the fourth nation to conduct whaling marks a new blow to efforts to ease global tensions on the issue, which instead appear to be escalating in a vicious cycle.
South Korea stunned a session of the International Whaling Commission in Panama by announcing that it would use a loophole in a global moratorium that permits killing whales for research, the same tactic as Japan.
The session comes two years after an intense but ultimately unsuccessful bid backed by the United States to end the deep divisions at the Commission through a compromise that would have allowed but sharply curtailed Japan's whaling.
South Korea -- which had a major commercial whaling program until the moratorium took effect in 1986 -- was one of the most vociferous opponents of the deal as it would have barred additional countries from whaling.
Norway and Iceland openly defy the moratorium on commercial whaling. Several other countries including the United States and Russia allow whaling by indigenous people.
South Korean envoys told the conference that closed Friday that their country had abided by the moratorium throughout the topsy-turvy diplomacy on whaling but felt domestic pressure.
Environmentalists, while critical of South Korea, partly agreed that the announcement was a result of the failure of international efforts on whaling.
"South Korea has for years and years said that we play by the rules and we're being punished, but Japan keeps killing whales and hasn't been held accountable and that it's unfair," said Phil Kline, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace.
"The real tragic part is that the stock of minke whales that they would target is one of the most depleted of the whales out there," he said.
Whale meat is popular in the South Korean coastal town of Ulsan, which serves the remains of whales "accidentally" caught in nets. Critics say South Korea's high rate of bycatch raises suspicions that some whales may be killed intentionally.
South Korea has said that its scientific whaling would be confined to its waters, a contrast to Japan which enrages Australia and New Zealand by sending expeditions to Antarctic waters that have been declared a no-kill sanctuary.
South Korea was not the only nation to drop a bombshell at the whaling meeting. Denmark hinted that it may decide to defy the Commission after it lost a vote on indigenous whaling rights for Greenland.
Whaling by native peoples has generally been less controversial due to its small scale, but critics said that Greenland's whaling is an industry in disguise as whale is widely served to tourists in the territory.
The 2010 effort to reach a compromise, which collapsed at a meeting in Morocco, aimed partly to ensure the survival of the International Whaling Commission.
Japan has repeatedly threatened to bolt the 89-nation group, saying that it should stick narrowly to its focus when created in 1946 of regulating whaling.
Often forgotten amid recent tensions is that Canada actually did abandon the Commission when the moratorium took effect. Canada has since set quotas for whaling by indigenous groups without seeking the Commission's permission.
Leigh Henry, senior policy adviser for the US branch of the WWF conservationist group, said that the Commission remained important and hoped that Denmark would revise and resubmit its proposal.
"Whales, like many migratory species, don't know international boundaries so there's a huge danger for a country like Canada if it doesn't ensure that those quotas are sustainable. They may be taking the same stock as in Alaska," she said.
In another proposal at the Commission, Japan and its allies killed a bid to declare the southern Atlantic a sanctuary, even though no whaling takes place there now and the major nations in the area all supported the idea.
Despite the open tensions in Panama, some delegates and environmentalists saw bright points. They said that experts were working together on issues such as saving whales from entanglement and ship wrecks, which concern all countries regardless of positions on whaling.
In perhaps a fitting ending to the Panama talks, one of the few concrete decisions both sides agreed to was to see less of each other. The Commission's full meetings will now take place every two years instead of annually.
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