01:27 - Source: CNN
South Korean police investigate sunken ship claims
CNN  — 

Police in Seoul have raided the offices of a South Korean company which claimed to have found a sunken Russian warship with billions of dollars of gold on board.

Shinil Group attracted global attention when it claimed last month to have discovered the Dmitri Donskoii, a 5,800-ton warship that had sunk during the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in the waters between present-day South Korea and Japan.

Reports from the time of the ship’s sinking claimed the gold on board could be worth upwards of $125 billion, a staggering amount Shinil later downgraded to a still respectable $8.9 billion at a press conference on July 26.

Ahead of that press event, the company had hinted it would make a major announcement, perhaps even show photos and video of the gold on board. But nothing was forthcoming, and questions began to be raised over the veracity of previous images of the sunken ship put out by the company.

The police raid, which occurred Tuesday morning officials confirmed, comes less than a week after police told CNN they were investigating the firm on suspicion of fraud and had banned senior company officials from leaving the country.

Attempts to reach Shinil were unsuccessful. Details about the company have so far been scant. A representative previously told CNN it was a “conglomerate,” and the as-yet-totally-theoretical ship’s salvage was major part of its business operations.

Asked why the company had begun its search for the ship, the representative said Shinil wanted something that would “give hopes and dreams to the Korean people” after the corruption scandal which eventually resulted in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.

Dubious history

Following Shinil’s original announcement of the ship’s discovery, shares of Jeil Steel Manufacturing Co. surged on the South Korean stock market, though Jeil Steel said it had nothing to do with the finding.

The Financial Supervisory Service said both the current and former heads of Shinil Group bought stakes in Jeil Steel earlier this month, according to Reuters.

If the ship’s “discovery” was an attempt to juice stock prices, there was strong precedent for assuming it would work. Following reports in 2000 that it would attempt to explore and salvage the ship, shares in Dong-ah Construction surged despite skepticism and official government denials over the amount of gold on board the Dmitri Donskoii.

Dong-ah did not manage to salvage the ship or establish how much gold was actually on board, and the company eventually went bankrupt.

The Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) has also disputed Shinil’s claims about the ship’s discovery, pointing to photos it published of the wreck in 2007.

Golden prize

The Dmitri Donskoii, a first class armored cruiser, first set sail in the 1880s and was scuttled in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War, which Moscow eventually lost.

Since its sinking, rumors have abounded that it carried a large amount of gold coins – as much as 14,000 metric tons by one estimate – on board to fund the Russian war effort. These persisted despite numerous attempts by experts and government officials to cast doubt on the claims.

“She was a very old and slow ship … a very unlikely candidate to be entrusted with transporting a tenth of all the gold ever mined in the world,” wrote Constantine Pleshakov, author of “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima.” “Not to mention that even though Tsar Nicholas II was rather thickheaded, he would never have ordered the transport of such a large amount of gold by ship from St Petersburg to Vladivostok when he had the Trans-Siberian Railroad at his disposal.”

After the initial discovery of the Dmitri Donskoii in 2000, Sergei Klimovsky, then head of scholarly research at the Central Naval Museum in St. Petersburg, told Bloomberg there was “no archival material or scientific evidence to support the idea that there is gold (on board).”

“This question of gold on Russian warships occasionally arises, but there is none, and the Koreans will be wasting their money,” he added.

CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Jueng-eun Kim contributed reporting.