Whaling dominates Japan PM's New Zealand trip

AUCKLAND- The thorny issue of whaling dominated Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe's whistlestop trip to New Zealand Monday, with Prime Minister John Key saying they had agreed to disagree on the matter.

New Zealand and Australia hauled Japan before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its "scientific" whaling programme in Antarctic waters, leading to the UN court ruling in April that it was a commercial venture and had no research value.

Abe has since signalled that Japan intends to look at ways it can resume the annual Southern Ocean hunt without breaching the ICJ ruling, setting up a potentially awkward meeting with Key on his one-day visit.

Key said Abe had confirmed the plan to resume whaling and reiterated New Zealand's position that it wanted the harpooning to stop.

"The prime minister (Abe) did make it clear that they are looking at what sort of whaling programme, in theory, could be conducted that fits within the rules," Key told reporters.

"He was very clear to say that Japan will abide by the ICJ decision but it's also fair to say that there's a difference of opinion. New Zealand would certainly prefer to see the end of all whaling." Key said the issue would not damage the bilateral relationship but New Zealand would be closely watching any Japanese attempt to revive the hunt Earlier, the New Zealand leader told commercial radio that "it would be very disappointing" if whaling resumed.

Tokyo called off its 2014-15 Antarctic season after the ICJ's decision, and said it would redesign the mission in a bid to make it more scientific.

The whaling issue overshadowed trade talks designed to shore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious planned free trade deal encompassing 12 nations, including Japan and New Zealand.

Abe will head to Christchurch later Monday, where he will pay tribute to the 28 Japanese students killed in a devastating earthquake in 2011.

He will then depart for Australia as part of a swing through the Pacific that also includes Papua New Guinea.