One of Korea’s most valuable trade products during the late Joseon era was ginseng. “Hongsam” (red ginseng) was especially valued by the Chinese. Hongsam was considered the personal property of the Korean monarch, and unauthorized possession by Koreans was punished with summary execution. “But in spite of the death penalty for its private disposal large quantities are smuggled across the Yellow Sea in junks from the western coast of the peninsula to the mainland, and also across the northwestern borders into China, where it always commands a ready market and good price.”
In late January 1886, rumors began to circulate that Chinese merchants were secretly buying up large amounts of red ginseng in an effort to smuggle it out of the country and sell it for huge profits in China. It was commonly believed that many of the Chinese merchants in Jemulpo (modern Incheon) smuggled ginseng in addition to their legitimate business. The Chinese government was well aware of these smugglers and even facilitated their efforts by providing them passage aboard Chinese warships.
On Jan. 20, the Chinese warship, Ching Hsai, sailed into Jemulpo harbor and was scheduled to leave on the morning of the 26th. Alfred Stripling, the head of the Korean Customs Department in Jemulpo, posted inspectors throughout the city in effort to prevent the ginseng from being smuggled aboard. They were so effective that according to Ensign George C. Foulk (the American representative to Korea) “every avenue of escape of the ginseng had been closed.”
The smugglers soon became desperate. The Customs Department was warned that “a determined attempt to involve fighting if necessary, would be made by the Chinese in combination that evening (Jan. 25), to get their ginseng off to the gunboat.” The warning became reality when a Korean customs official stopped a Chinese merchant and asked to inspect his bags. The merchant immediately struck the official. Charles Welch, an American employed by the Customs Department, immediately went to his fellow agent’s aid and was subsequently set upon by a large number of Chinese. Both men were severely injured.
The Chinese mob then ransacked the Korean Customs Office sending the agents fleeing for their lives. Over the next couple of days a large number of the Chinese in Jemulpo continued to protest (often with violence) the Korean government’s efforts to thwart ginseng smuggling. Further outrages were prevented by the arrival of British and Chinese sailors.
It was only through the persistence of the Korean government and the complaints of the foreign representatives did Yuan Shih-kai, the Chinese minister to Korea, order that the Chinese demonstrators be arrested.
A quick trial was held in Seoul in which several minor merchants were found guilty and sentenced to be severely beaten and deported but none of the ringleaders (some of whom had personal relationships with Chinese officials) were charged. Once again the foreign community protested and Yuan was forced to reconvene the trial ― this time the ringleaders were also found guilty and sentenced to be deported. They were also ordered to pay compensation for the damage done.
In addition, the Korean official who had stopped the Chinese merchant was also ordered to be severely punished. It was only through the efforts of the Commissioner of Korean Customs, Henry F. Merrill, that the Korean official was spared.
Merrill later advocated Korea remove the ban on hongsam. He was convinced that the Korean government was unable to enforce it and that it would be better to collect large duties on its export.