Saturday, September 25, 2004


Russian shipwreck rumored to be loaded with $124 billion in gold bars


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SEOUL, Korea (23 Sep 2004) -- President Roh Moo-hyun and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached agreements on a swath of political and economic issues during their talks this week, but another intriguing issue never made it onto the summit table. Bubbling under the surface of the two countries relations is a debate over the ownership of a shipwreck, believed to be a Russian warship carrying treasures that sank off the Korean peninsula during the Russo-Japanese War.

The story of the sunken vessel surfaced four years ago when a South Korean construction company began a joint exploration project with the Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute (KORDI) into the shipwreck in the East Sea, suspected of being loaded with gold worth a whopping $124 billion. After the report, the Dong-ah construction company, then facing bankruptcy, saw its shares skyrocket.

The investigation team last year released reports suggesting the ship could be Russian warship the Dmitri Donskoi from Tsarist times, which sank off Ullung Island during the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. The announcement came after a joint investigation using state-of-the-art equipment including side scan-sonar and an ROV, or unmanned submarine.

According to historians, the Dmitri Donskoi may prove to be very valuable in that it could offer a rare glimpse of the lifestyles of Russians in the early 1900s. The 5,800-ton vessel also allegedly may contain over half a ton of gold, which could fuel a possible dispute over the ownership of the Russian warship.

Even if the rumors of gold prove true, however, it is unlikely to be a case of finders-keepers due to weak international law on such issues, according to legal experts. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea does not deal with the ownership of sunken vessels in foreign territories, which means the countries involved have to negotiate to resolve the dispute.

"Though the vessel proves to be the Dmitri Donskoi, the matter of the ownership over the shipwreck would not be ours to decide,'' Yoo Hai-soo, a KORDI official in charge of the joint investigation, told reporters. "Because of a weak international legal base on such issues, it couldn't be resolved without negotiations between the two countries concerned.''

A case in point is the dispute between Japan and Russia in 1981 over the warship Nakhimov carrying 17 gold bars, which sank off the island of Tsushima in 1981. The Japanese government gave up its effort to salvage the sunken vessel as Russia had claimed ownership.

Chong Wa Dae officials said last week that the subject is not very likely to be brought up during the summit between the two leaders.

"It's not even clear whether the sunken ship is the Dimitri Donskoi, and we're also not sure whether there really is any gold and treasures,'' a government official said.

"It's a very sensitive issue concerning both countries, so we're not in a hurry to decide who will claim ownership of the vessel believed to be lying on the ocean floor,'' the official added. "If it turns out to be the Donskoi, the South Korean government has to go through very complicated negotiations with Russian counterparts.''

The South Korean oceanic research center and the company said they would continue to conduct close-up surveys to confirm their report that the sunken vessel is the gold-laden Russian warship. But the joint project on the sunken vessel has been stalled for over a year due to the Dong-ah Company's bankruptcy, Yoo said.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) developed out of the rival imperialist ambitions of Russia and Japan for dominance in Korea and Manchuria. It resulted in a surprise victory for Japan, establishing Japan as a major world power.

SOURCE - Jakarta Post

Check the Korea Times, BBC News.

Sunken Russian warship Dmitri Donskoi

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