"They threatened me with a rifle and ordered me to turn the ship towards Iran," says South Korean Jeon Yeong-Hyeon.

He experienced the drama in person.

Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf, early morning on January 4, 2021.

20-year-old Jeon climbs up the ladder to the bridge. He is given a rapid brief on compass course and speed. Then the young ship officer takes over navigation of the 146 meter long ship.

The South Korean Hankuk Chemi has loaded ethanol in Saudi Arabia and is on its way out of the Persian Gulf. On board is a crew of 20 from several Asian countries.

The tank ship plows through the waves. Third officer Jeon knows that they are approaching one of the world's most dangerous maritime areas. He has sailed here many times before. One month ago, Iranian speedboats almost appeared. But the tank ship escaped.

Jeon takes off his glasses and raises the binoculars. There are still no other boats in sight.

The crew of the tanker are pictured on the bridge of the tanker during meeting with Korean diplomats. Third officer Jeon in a white jumpsuit. He has asked Fædrelandsvennen to obscure his face. Foto: South Korea Department of Foreign Affairs

The Strait of Hormuz is a curved area around the Arabian Peninsula. At its narrowest point, it is about five miles wide. The coast to the south belongs to Oman. On the other side is Iran.

Twenty percent of the world's oil is transported through the Strait. Stopping this traffic will have enormous consequences. The leadership of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps know this.

They have been behind a series of attacks and threats against tanker ships for several years.

The United States, Britain, and other major nations have sent war ships to the Strait. But war ships cannot follow every single merchant ship.

Fædrelandsvennen has zoomed in on one of the images of the Båtservice designed vessel that participated in the hijacking. Foto: AP

Suddenly, speedboats appear behind Hankuk Chemi. They swarm around like angry wasps. Jeon sees that they have Iranian flags waving fiercely in the wind. The boats have machine guns in the bow.

Jeon alerts the captain.

A military helicopter circles threateningly close over the tanker. It flies up and down. Shadows darken parts of the deck of Hankuk Chemi.

Jeon thinks he sees the mouth of a machine gun sticking out of the helicopter door. Later it will turn out that this is probably a TV camera that is filming what is about to happen.

On board each of the Iranian boats are men with automatic rifles. Jeon sees them yelling and waving their rifles at Hankuk Chemi.

See the news segment of the hijacking on CNN:

"Monitoring us"

Perhaps there are as many as 20 boats around the tanker, Jeon thinks. Most of them are small and white. But one of them stands out. It is grey, much larger, and has more equipment. This vessel also has machine guns on deck.

"It looked like they were monitoring us," Jeon says in the interview with Fædrelandsvennen.

"The small boats didn't have radar or other navigation equipment. I think they brought a larger warship to see where we were," he says.

The captain of the tanker tries to contact the Korean navy that is in the area. According to Jeon, he is unsuccessful.

When the Iranians order Hankuk Chemi to hang the ladder over the rail, the captain does so.

One of the Iranian boats approaches them. At high speed, the soldiers climb aboard and make their way to the bridge. There, Jeon is given a clear message:

"Since I was the navigator on duty, they threatened me with a rifle and ordered me to turn the ship towards Iran," Jeon tells Fædrelandsvennen.

Images and films taken from the helicopter are released by a regime-controlled news agency. They are used by a number of international media outlets. In Iran, the hijacking is the front page headline in several newspapers.

In the images taken from the helicopter, the grey-painted boat is seen next to the tanker. There are no close-up images, but a series of red fenders are still visible in the images.

The same fenders can be found on the rescue boats that Mandal-verftet Båtservice delivered to Iran over the years. The rescue boats are about 19 meters long and are equipped with a waterjet that gives them a top speed of 43 knots.

The image shows the first Nejat-class rescue vessel being tested in the waters off Mandal. The vessel was delivered to Iran in December 2010. Foto: Båtservice

Confronted aircraft carrier

In 2012, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stopped the export of several rescue boats from Mandal to Iran. The reason was that they could be used militarily, as the Americans had warned.

Fædrelandsvennen's revelations show that what was feared has come true.

We have gone through a huge amount of imagery from Iranian propaganda channels. A grey-painted warship in Båtservice's distinctive design appears for the first time on images from 2016.

In 2018, the US aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis had a close encounter with the Revolutionary Guard in the Hormuz Strait in the Persian Gulf.

The images taken on board the aircraft carrier show a grey-painted Båtservice vessel with fixed machine guns in front and behind.

Third officer Jeon Yeong-Hyeon on Hankuk Chemi has received a picture from the aircraft carrier. He confirms that it was a similar warship that participated in the hijacking of his tanker three years later.

This mark shows that the vessel that confronted the American aircraft carrier belongs to the Revolutionary Guard's Naval Special Forces. Foto: Jon Gambrell/ AP/FVN graphics

Trained on attacking

In 2020, the Revolutionary Guard trains on surrounding a large copy of an aircraft carrier. Once again, a grey Båtservice vessel is present, according to the propaganda that Fædrelandsvennen has reviewed.

"The attack on the model of the aircraft carrier is the Revolutionary Guard's own absurd theater," Mina Bai tells Fædrelandsvennen.

She is a Norwegian-Iranian author and arrived in Norway in 1992 after fleeing Iran.

"The film is edited in 'Hollywood style' and is meant to show that the Revolutionary Guard can overcome the Americans at any time and that the US has no business in the Persian Gulf," Bai says.

The grey vessel is clearly visible behind the copy of the aircraft carrier in a propaganda film from 2020. Foto: IRIB News

"Don't think much about it"

For years, Båtservice Director Bjørn W. Fjellhaugen has claimed that the boats from Mandal are only used for civilian rescue missions. Fædrelandsvennen has shown him the images of the hijacking.

"What do you think of these hijackings when you see boats with this design being used?"

"I don't really think much about it," Fjellhaugen says.

He points out that it has been many years since they delivered their last rescue boats to Iran.

Here, Båtservice Director Bjørn W. Fjellhaugen sees the images of the hijacking. Foto: Jacob J. Buchard

"We have no control over what they have done now. Not at all."

Read the interview with Fjellhaugen here.

A pilot boat from Mandal

More surveillance images from Hankuk Chemi have been released by the shipping company. Here, what appears to be another Båtservice boat appears.

This is likely a tugboat. It approaches close to the side of the tanker, likely when the tanker is on its way into the port of Bandar Abbas.

Båtservice in Mandal, Norway, built and sold several of these pilot boats to Iran.

A surveillance camera captured what seems to be a pilot boat of Båtservice design laying besides Hankuk Chemi. Foto: Taikun Shipping Co

The hull is similar to the rescue boats, but they are slightly shorter. Underwater, they are equipped with a standard propeller that gives them a speed of 27 knots.

In its search for what happened to the Båtservice boats, Fædrelandsvennen has found a picture from 2010 of one of Iran's most important religious leaders in a pilot boat.

Ayatolla Ahmad Jannati (83) inspects the pilot boat «Hadi 5» in 2010. Foto: Port And Maritim Organization (PMO)

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (currently 95) has headed the Guardian Council since 1988, an organization with immense power in Iran.

The picture is published by Båtservice's Iranian customer PMO. "Hadi 5" and "Made by Båtservice Iran" are written on the pilot boat's bridge.

According to the text that accompanies the picture, Jannati is supposed to be looking at the development of the port of Bushehr.

Tugboats are a civilian function. But on January 4, 2021, the Båtservice boat is used in connection with the hijacking of the Korean ship.

The map below shows the course of Hankuk Chemi on the day it was hijacked. The hijacking site is marked with a star. Foto: FVN

Forced to kneel

Persian Gulf January 4, 2021:

On board Hankuk Chemi, the Iranian soldiers search the ship. Every room, every cabin is searched. The crew of 20 is pulled out onto the deck.

They are ordered down on their knees. When everyone is gathered, they are taken to the crew mess.

Here they will stay for a whole month before they are allowed to return to their cabins, 3rd officer Jeon Yeong-Hyeon tells Fædrelandsvennen.

"We were too many in that mess. I couldn't find any place to exercise. We couldn't go out, we just stayed there. And there was nothing we could do about it," he says.

"How many hours did you sleep through that month?"

"Whether we slept or not was up to us. They didn't care."

Iran officially says they have taken Hankuk Chemi because the ship is supposed to have broken the pollution law. The shipping company denies the accusations.

And there is something else behind it.

This article was posted by the government-controlled Tasnim News Agency. The translation reads: "Iran seized a ship belonging to South Korea for causing pollution in the Persian Gulf. This may be a good opportunity to obtain Iran's blocked currency in South Korea, which is estimated at around 8 billion dollars." Foto: Screenshot

It seems that 3rd officer Jeon and the crew were being used to force South Korea to release large amounts of money for Iranian oil. The funds have been stopped due to US sanctions.

On board the tanker, the soldiers are said to have used this against the crew:

"In front of those who were afraid, the soldiers said they could harm us physically if the economic means were not released," Jeon says.

Some of the crew shook and were terrified. Jeon himself says he was more angry than afraid. Of the humiliation and oppression they were subjected to.

"I was so stressed that my head burned every day," he says.

During their captivity, Korean diplomats met with the crew of the Hankuk Chemi onboard the ship. Foto: South Korea Department of Foreign Affairs

Threats and attacks

For decades, the Revolutionary Guard has threatened international shipping off the coast of Iran. Norwegian seafarers sailing in the Persian Gulf during the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s lived with a constant fear of being sunk.

Today, most Norwegian ships have foreign crew. The Norwegian War Insurance for Ships has had between 40 and 50 member vessels in the Persian Gulf since 2019.

As far as Fædrelandsvennen’s investigations can tell, there have been reports of more than 30 different actions against ships from various countries in the same period.

"The degree of military power ranges across what is often referred to as hybrid warfare," says the company's security director, Freddy Furulund, to Fædrelandsvennen.

Hijacking and threatening ships is not an uncommon method. But Iranians have also attached mines to tankers and detonated them.

"The idea is that they can indirectly target the West by creating turmoil in the oil market - the West's critical vulnerability," Furulund says.

There have been several hijackings before and after Hankuk Chemi, but Fædrelandsvennen has not found documentation of vessels with Båtservice design being involved in them.

Illegal copies?

Documentation Fædrelandsvennen have gathered, suggests that the Iranians have copied the SAR vessel design from Båtservice. It is not clear whether the grey vessel used in the Capture of Hankuk Chemi is a copy or an old SAR vessel that has been repainted.

Båtservice director Fjellhaugen believes it is easy to copy their boats. "They can just take in a boat, put it on the slip and measure it up," he says.

Fjellhaugen adds that he believes the boats they delivered to Iran and the customer Ports and Maritime Organization (PMO) were not used for hijackings.

"I don't think PMO has given away any of its boats," says Fjellhaugen.

"And if they have, that's strange. They still need more SAR vessels."

No longer sailing overseas

In April 2021, Hankuk Chemi is allowed to leave Iran. For three months, extensive diplomacy has been conducted to release the boat and crew.

3rd officer Jeon Yeong-Hyeon makes two trips through the Hormuz Strait with the tanker. He is even more vigilant than before.

"I had no choice but to be a little more nervous," Jeon says.

"If it happened again, I would have navigated closer to the coast of the United Arab Emirates," he says.

Eventually, he leaves Hankuk Chemi and joins another boat.

"I no longer sail on overseas routes. Only domestically," he says.