The video images are ghostly and blurred, but they are part of an intriguing treasure hunt. The grainy footage - no more than a few minutes long - shows the eerie silhouette of a crumbling ship. This wreck could be the Dmitry Donskoy, an armoured cruiser that sank in the Sea of Japan in 1905, during the biggest naval battle of the Russian-Japanese war. The 5,800-tonne ironclad vessel sailed from Europe as part of the tsarist Russia Baltic fleet. Its orders were to cut the supply lines of the Japanese army, which was attacking Port Arthur, now the Chinese city of Dalian. But the port fell and the fleet was redirected to Russia's Pacific fortress at Vladivodstok. They never made it. The Japanese destroyed the entire convoy during the Battle of Tsushima. The Donskoy was engaged several times by the enemy. However, she managed to rescue hundreds of seamen from crippled Russian destroyers. Having survived the initial engagement at the Battle of Tsushima, the Donskoy tried to escape into the Sea of Japan in the hope of reaching Vladivodstok. But her pursuers spotted her smoke near Ulleung Island. Cornered beneath the cliffs of a small archipelago, and unable to manoeuvre because its decks and cabins were full of wounded and survivors of other ships, the captain of the Donskoy opted to deny the Japanese the satisfaction of seizing their prey. Under cover of darkness he sent most of the crew ashore. Then, with a small party, he scuttled the Donskoy off the coast of Ulleung Island. Since then, a legend has haunted the area: that a fabulous treasure lies inside the holds of this ill-fated ship. This myth was sparked off when the locals on Ulleung Island saw the Russian crew disembarking. They carried a safe containing gold coins and jars. This was probably the ship's cash box that the captain kept on board to buy food and coal during the Donskoy's port calls. Unfounded rumours spread down the years. To some, the Donskoy carried all the tsar's gold ingots for financing the war. With time, the wealth supposedly submerged with the Donskoy became inflated to a staggering US$124 billion. None of the myth-believers took the time to consider that such an amount was equivalent to a weight of 14,000 metric tonnes - more than a 10th of the weight of all the gold ever mined in the world. The hype surrounding this ship replays like an old record. The Donskoy was at the centre of a financial scandal a few years ago. In 2000, rumours of her discovery splashed in the South Korean newspapers led to the rally of construction company Dong Ah on the stock market. The firm was said to have found the lost vessel and her bullion. Dong Ah's share price shot up 70 per cent in one week as Seoul speculators scrambled for a piece of the phantasm. Many went so far as to believe the wealth inside the Donskoy was so huge it could save South Korea, which at that time was being assisted by the International Monetary Fund. On suspicion that the story was rigged, the Korean Stock Exchange suspended trading in Dong Ah's shares, pending the firm's clarification. Dong Ah's stock sank as fast as it had risen. Still on the brink of bankruptcy, Dong Ah is betting to catch a second wind of gold fever. The company has proposed sponsoring a new expedition to identify the Donskoy. Vice-president of Dong Ah's planning department, Park Kyung-sik, admitted, however, that his company 'might not be able' to fulfil its financial obligations. A South Korean analyst, who declined to be named, said: 'This company is desperately in need of a bit of good publicity.' Respected Russian naval historian Yury Filatov scoffs at the suggestion that there is anything more than fool's gold under the sea. According to Mr Filatov, gold was never accepted for payment. Only hard currency was used. Anyway, the total allowance for the entire fleet rarely exceeded the equivalent of #1,500 for the entire campaign. This was divided among the vessels of the squadron, meaning each ship received only a modest sum. Besides, Mr Filatov rules out the possibility that the Donskoy carried a large amount of gold for another reason. 'Why would the Donskoy be used to ferry gold, taking the risk of being captured by the Japanese, when Vladivodstok was already linked by railway? The train was beyond the reach of the Japanese army and was clearly the safest option,' he said. However, gold has the ability to transform the most sensible people into believers of fairy tales. The 98-year-old wreck has fired people's imaginations beyond Korea. Treasure-seekers from the US and Japan have also long sought the Donskoy. Intrigued by the enduring myth, James Cameron, award-winning director of the blockbuster Titanic, travelled to South Korea to interview the discoverers of the wreck - the government-funded Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute (Kordi). This reputable institute raised the flag for caution. Kordi spokeswoman Kang Hyun-joo says: 'We can't deny we have found a wreck. However, it remains to be seen whether this is the Donskoy.' To put a name to the unidentified ship, Kordi is planning a new expedition next spring, once the winter storms blow over. As in May, a mini submersible will film the wreck, this time for a longer period and more thoroughly. A robot will reinforce the team of scientists. Its task will be to cut the rigging and the masts that obstruct access to the wreck. If a path can be cut, the robot will film the stern where the name of the ship is engraved. Kordi wants to give scientific meaning to this exploration. Its officials claim they want to seize this opportunity to study the little-known seabed of this deep stretch of ocean. The wreck, which rests at 400 metres beneath the water's surface, is anchored on a small platform in the middle of a cliff that drops 1.5km. 'To fully appreciate how sheer this volcanic cliff is, keep in mind that the wreck is less than 2km from the shore,' explains Kordi president Dr Sang Kyung-byun. In contrast to the Yellow Sea, the eastern side of South Korea is an abyss. Ulleung Island is the remains of an extinct volcano, which emerges from the 2,000-metre-deep seabed. Despite the Herculean task of lifting a wreck that is now just a mass of rust from that depth, the research institute does not rule out the possibility. Even if Kordi avoids the topic, this scientific mission will serve some nationalistic ends. This expedition is, after all, a way to reinforce South Korea's territorial claims. Seoul and Tokyo have been arguing since 1945 over ownership to those rich fishing grounds. At the centre of this dispute are the Tokdo Islands, no more than rocky outcrops 90km east of Ulleung Island, and twice that distance from the nearest Japanese shore. Seoul, unwilling to lose one centimetre of its territory, has stationed coast guards reinforced by dog patrols on the islands. Supplies are brought in by helicopter. During winter, the small garrison is isolated from the rest of the world. From time to time, the South Korean navy holds war games in the surrounding waters, supposedly to repulse any landing from unnamed enemies. This spring, South Korea has re-christened the Sea of Japan. All future references must be made to the 'East Sea', one of its early names. South Korean diplomats are busy enforcing the use of this name. They cross-check records to determine how other countries refer to the disputed islets in their official records. Discovering that France still uses the former name, they have raised a formal complaint with Paris. Japan has not done anything to defuse the dispute. In 2000, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori poured oil on the fire by stating that Takeshima, the Japanese name for Tokdo Islands, was 'clearly a part of Japanese territorial waters'. Every now and then, the Japanese navy sends one of its ships near those tiny islands to unnerve the South Koreans and to test their resolve. Taking seriously the task of defending her maritime boundaries, South Korea has reinforced her fleet with heavy destroyers that are ineffective against her traditional foe North Korea but, as a western naval attache pointed out, 'they are exactly the kind of weapons South Korea needs to face Japan'.