They know it’s down there somewhere...The hunt for lost treasure on the Korean Peninsula goes back as far as the 1970s, when rumors began to circulate of treasures said to have been hidden by the Japanese during colonial rule.
Thirty years later, the hunt for the riches is on. Treasures collected by the Japanese from occupied territories in East Asia are said to be buried somewhere on Jindo island. Russian battleships filled with gold and silver are said to be at the bottom of the sea near places such as Ulleungdo, Gunsan and Pohang. Many hunters for these elusive treasures rely on maps allegedly drawn by the Japanese, or on the statements of old villagers who remember the occupation days.
Oh Sae-cheon, a former Special Forces soldier, has been in the hunt for eight years already. After his discharge from the army, he was looking for work, and decided to open a security business with another retired soldier.
It was then that his quest began.
“A person who worked with us told us about this treasure that was supposedly somewhere near Jukdo, a small island near Jindo,” Mr. Oh said. “It was like magic. The moment I heard the story, I got hooked.”
He was told that the treasure amounted to 25 ammunition boxes filled with diamonds and sapphires. With 30 million won ($25,700) in his pocket, he went down to the place in question. “I learned scuba diving skills in the army. I had nothing to lose.”
At Jukdo he teamed up with another person, but after three months, they hadn’t found anything.
He continued on his own, borrowing an additional 300 million won from a bank by putting up his house and some land as collateral. After two months, he was out of money again.
In December 1998, he suspended his search and decided to trace the story he had been told. Upon talking to a woman who claimed she had bought a map to the treasure from a Japanese man who’d participated in hiding it, he was convinced the story was true.
What he needed now was an investor. That’s when he met Lee Yong-ho, who today is in prison for embezzlement. Mr. Lee received 40 billion won from investors, but Mr. Oh saw none of it.
“I thought he was a big businessman. When he got the money, he just told me that he didn’t believe that there was any treasure,” said Mr. Oh, who had to spend some time with the prosecution when Lee Yong-ho was charged with embezzlement.
Last year, he decided to settle down, opening up a sushi restaurant at Swimi ― a harbor near where the treasure supposedly lies. For Mr. Oh, it seems, the hunt won’t be over until he has found something.
“When I take my son to a public bath house, I train him in diving techniques,” he said. “Who knows? Someday he might find what I could not.”
Yoo Hae-soo, 49, who works at the Korea Ocean Research & Development Institute, does not think of himself as a treasure hunter. “‘People who practice marine science’ would be the appropriate term,” Mr. Yoo said.
Last June, he announced at a press conference that he had found the wreckage of the Dmitri Domskoi, a Russian cruiser that went down near Ulleungdo Island in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War.
As a researcher, Mr. Yoo specializes in marine structural geology for the purpose of finding natural resources such as oil. In 1998, Dong-A Construction agreed to invest seven billion won for the search for the ship.
“Domskoi is a legend among maritime scientists. I could not quit,” says Mr. Yoo.
Unmanned underwater cameras and submarines were used in the search; the final stage involved a manned submarine. At 400 meters, a photo was taken of the wreckage.
To date, no further exploration has been done, due to lack of funds. Asked whether he thinks there is any gold on the ship, the researcher said, “Nobody knows. The official record says that the ship had a lot of Smirnoff vodka. If the cork stoppers are still intact, hundred-year-old vodka of that brand does command a respectable value.” For this researcher, the Domskoi itself seemed to be the treasure.
Baek Joon-heum, 47, is the CEO of Jangbogosalbaeji, a company that specializes in the search of ship wreckages and hidden treasures. Currently, he is working on 11 sites off the peninsula where he believes the Imperial Japanese Army hid treasure during World War II.
An adventurer of colorful background, Mr. Baek in 1975 became the first person in the country to fly a hang glider. In 1995, he reached an altitude of 12,200 meters in a hot-air balloon. It was then that he became interested in treasure-hunting. “I wanted to make a world trip in a balloon,” he said. “I figured I needed about seven billion won, so what better way to come up with that kind of money than looking for a treasure?”
His first attempt was in 2000, when he started to search for a Japanese battleship that had supposedly sunk in the Yellow Sea. The person claiming to have the information turned out to be a crook. “That was only the beginning,” Mr. Baek said. “After that, I met a couple of other swindlers and wasted good money.”
He is now working on his own, mostly relying on statements collected by local citizens. His main area of interest is Jeju Island; he says he has received material from a relative of a Japanese soldier who died in 2001 while searching for a treasure there.
Mr. Baek says he thinks of the search for treasure as a marathon.
“I have been doing it for three years without any concrete findings,” he said. “But when you see people trying to lure investors, acting as if the big catch is going to happen any time, you can be sure there is something wrong.”
So you found sunken treasure... now what?
If a treasure-hunter actually finds treasure, is he really entitled to take it?
When sunken treasure is found, there is often a conflict between individuals and a government.
In the case of a ship, it makes a difference whether the ship is a civilian or a military vessel, and whether the valuables on the ship are considered cultural assets or are simply gold bars or some other comparatively generic form of treasure.
Even if it is found in another country’s waters, a military vessel is always considered the property of the nation that built it, unless that nation surrenders rights to it.
“There is no doubt that Russia, which is the successor of the old Russia, has the rights to the Domskoi. It is an internationally accepted norm,” said Kim Chang-gyu, a professor of international law at Kyunghee University.
He adds that the cost of finding the ship may be given to the finder as compensation.
This is not the case, however, when it comes to Japanese ships that were sunk in Korean waters.
Since the fall of the Japanese Empire, all such discoveries on the peninsula have been considered to be under the jurisdiction of the Korean government.
This was made official in a 1965 agreement between Korea and Japan.
by Pyo Jae-yong, Kim Pil-gyu