In the 19th century, ginseng was one of Korea's most important crops. The best ginseng came from the area around Songdo (modern-day Gaesong in North Korea) and was, according to one Western visitor, "grown from seed under long low sheds, constructed of pine bark with an under-covering of matting.''
"The seed takes about five years to grow to size requisite for exportation,'' he continues. ''It is gathered and dried in the sun during July, August, and September, and is packed very neatly in catty, 600 grams parcels. The best quality consists of 20 roots to the catty ― the next 30 and etc."
Most of the ginseng was sold domestically but red ginseng, which was considered the personal property of the Korean monarch and could only be sold by his agents, was a valuable export to China.
In 1865, Reverend Robert Thomas, a Westerner residing in China, reported that "about 15,000 catties, worth 180,000 taels, (were) brought (to Beijing) by the annual (Korean) embassy." In the early 1880s, one "tael'' was worth about $1.40.
Naturally enough, being such a valuable and much sought after commodity, ginseng tempted some Korean merchants and growers to engage in illicit trade with Chinese smugglers. Smuggling was usually done at sea and was an enterprise filled with risks (especially for the Korean dealers) and large financial rewards ― mainly for the Chinese smugglers.
Thomas, who managed to travel to Korea in 1865, is one of the early Western recorders of this illicit trade and claimed that "all the contraband trade between the Coreans and Chinese (was) carried on at night," and involved some twenty small Chinese junks that would anchor about a mile or two off the Korean coast. "The Chinese concluded a (Korean) junk to be a trader if she anchored with no ostensible objects at that distance from them."
While many of the Chinese might have been from the lower classes, there were some who came from the upper classes. Li Fang used to accompany the Korean embassy to Beijing but the duties on the Koreans goods "were so heavy and the profits so small (so he said), that he found it more advantageous to trade on the ‘high seas.'"
Most of the Korean traders seem to have been of the lower classes and only dealt in small quantities ― less than 200 catties of ginseng ― but there were a couple of large dealers, known to the Chinese as "thousand catty merchants."
Perhaps one of the best known of these large dealers was Pak, whom the Chinese called "the thousand-catty Pak who wears silks and satins." Pak was a newly-converted Christian and described as "some kind of government official who cannot resist the dangerous pastime of smuggling.'' And, indeed, it was dangerous. Only the previous year two Korean smugglers were decapitated as a warning to other would-be smugglers.
There was also a degree of dishonesty amongst the traders and smugglers. According to their tradition, the Chinese smuggling junks were supposed to equally divide the ginseng obtained by the Korean traders, but that didn't always happen. "(A) Corean merchant [came] on board our junk and (told) our skipper he had perhaps 280 catties (and was) told to give out that he (had) only brought 180, and the skipper (threw) in as a cumshaw a bit of pongee."
The Koreans were given shirting and cloth which was then apparently sold for a fairly large profit in the interior of the country. In a successful season, the Chinese managed to bring back some 6,000 catties worth 48,000 taels.
While Thomas's accounts of ginseng smuggling and his first trip to Korea are interesting, they are relatively unknown. He is, however, remembered for his second and final trip to Korea. Thomas was aboard the ill-fated General Sherman, an American merchant ship, which was destroyed by an angry Korean mob just outside of Pyongyang in 1866. The crew, including Reverend Thomas, were all killed.
Robert Neff is a historian and contributing writer for The Korea Times - ED.