Criticism of South Korean naval authorities has intensified as it is revealed that the country’s only salvage and rescue ship was equipped with a fish-finding sonar instead of military-grade equipment.

ATS-II Tongyeong, a naval rescue vessel, was completed in 2012 at a cost of 159 billion won (US $150.7 million). But when the Sewol ferry sank on April 16 this year, Tongyeong was back in the construction yard, unable to be deployed to the rescue mission.

Now, defence suppliers face allegations that in the weeks following the ferry disaster, they knowingly attached a commercial sonar only suitable for salmon-fishing to Tongyeong, and tried to pass it off to the navy.


According to South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh, Tongyeong was fitted with a SH90 fishing sonar in May of this year, just after the Sewol ferry disaster. A source at a maritime equipment company told The Hankyoreh that a commercial fish-finding sonar like this could never meet the needs of a military vessel:

“The objectives of military sonar and fish-finding sonar are completely different… its performance will be worse and its range narrower than military sonar, which must be able to monitor a wide area and detect rapidly moving objects.”

Tongyeong is South Korea’s first and only salvage and rescue vessel, but the project has been plagued with problems since its inception. The ship was launched in 2012, but the Navy refused to accept delivery of it, saying its sonar was substandard, and Tongyeong was returned to the construction yard.

The revelation that Tongyeong was fitted with another unsuitable sonar in the weeks following the Sewol ferry disaster has led to speculation that the Defence Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) rushed to fit a non-military sonar to make the ship appear complete, thinking the navy would accept it.

Military authorities faced criticism for being unable to deploy Tongyeong to help with rescue efforts in the sinking of the MV Sewol. At least 295 passengers died when the ferry capsized on April 16, most of them teenagers from one high school. Two rescue divers also died in the salvage attempt, which was finally called off last month as worsening conditions made it too difficult to continue.

▼ The capsized MV Sewol. The captain and company president, along with thirteen crew members, were jailed last month on negligence charges.

A spokeperson for the DAPA denied that the acquisition programme planned to pass on unsuitable equipment, saying: “We didn’t install the SH90 on the Tongyeong in order to quickly pass it on to the navy. We just installed the equipment on the ship because we needed to test its performance.”

However, the salmon-fishing sonar was fitted as part of a deal which saw the president of military supplier Hakenko, along with two former DAPA employees, arrested and charged with supplying 200 million won worth of equipment for 4.1 billion won (US$3.73 million).

A follow-up investigation is underway, and the government is said to be considering a joint investigation on corruption in the defence industry.

Sources: Sankei News, The Hankyoreh
Featured image: Naval Open Source
Other images: Simrad SH90 Sonar
, Wikimedia/Ryuch