DISAPPOINTED: Protesters outside the building in Panama where the International Whaling Commission meets this week. Picture: REUTERS

SOUTH Korea came under pressure yesterday from outraged governments and environmentalists to scrap plans to kill whales under a "scientific" research programme denounced as a sham.

Critics of Seoul's decision, announced on Wednesday at an International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama, said so-called scientific whale catches were merely commercial whaling in disguise.

The commission's moratorium on whaling introduced in 1986 permits lethal research on whales, with the meat then allowed to be used for consumption. This loophole is already used by Japan.

Australia and New Zealand told their ambassadors to raise concerns with Seoul. "I'm very disappointed by this announcement by South Korea. We are completely opposed to whaling, there's no excuse for scientific whaling," Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.

New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully said there was no need to harpoon whales to conduct effective research. "(It) will have no more credibility than the so-called scientific programme conducted by Japan, which has long been recognised as commercial whaling in drag."

Greenpeace described scientific whaling as "just thinly disguised commercial whaling".

"This is the 21st century, and it has been proven time and time again that we don't need to kill whales to study them," it said.

"We were taken by surprise by this decision. Our office is being flooded by phone calls from campaigners abroad, including those in New Zealand, Britain and Australia," Greenpeace Korea marine campaigner Han Jeong-Hee said yesterday.

South Korea's chief envoy to the meeting, Kang Joon-Suk, said consumption of whale meat "dates back to historical times" in his country and the minke whale population had recovered since 1986. Seoul said it would announce later how many whales it would kill and when in its own waters, and insisted that it did not need foreign approval.

Greenpeace disputed claims that the minke whale population had recovered but said Seoul's whaling programme could not start right away. It must be reviewed by a whaling commission scientific committee and Seoul seemed unlikely to ask for this review before next summer, its statement said.

The Korean Federation for Environment Movement s urged the government immediately to withdraw its plan.

"We condemn the agriculture and fisheries ministry for following Japan's lead in hunting whales, which has become the object of international criticism," it said in a statement.

The federation said the ministry, which considers all whales "not as endangered mammals but as fish to be captured", should be stripped of its power to make decisions on whaling.

Whale meat is popular in and around the southeastern coastal city of Ulsan. South Korea already allows the sale of meat from whales "accidentally" caught in nets. But the unusually high rate of "bycatch" has raised suspicions among activists that they are sometimes deliberately killed.

About 100 whales, most of them minke, are netted accidentally every year in South Korean waters, Sohn Hawsun, National Fisheries Research and Development Institute researcher, said.

The Korean Federation for Environment Movement s wants the government to ban trade in whale meat and encourage fishermen to release whales by paying compensation for those caught.

Greenpeace said the country also has "a large and profitable illegal hunt of whales and every year there is fresh evidence of this continuing problem".