Gunsan in the early 20th century / Robert Neff Collection

Spring has long been the season for contentious encounters between the Korean Coast Guard and Chinese fishing boats and this year is no exception. As the demand for fish increases and the supply dwindles, the number of violent incidents involving fishing boats will continue to increase. But this is not a new problem.

In the summer of 1884, Chinese fishing boats, numbering between 7,000 and 8,000 junks, were actively fishing along the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. The amount of fish caught was staggering. According to one account, a single haul of the net resulted in enough fish to fill a Chinese junk. Of course, with the increased number of Chinese fishermen, there was bound to be problems.

One Chinese junk was seized by the Korean authorities for the lack of proper documentation causing a diplomatic incident between the two countries and resulting in Liu Chin-chung, the Chinese consul, being called upon to resolve the issue. The consul had a different perspective of the affair. He told a member of the British diplomatic community in Korea that “the Chinese had been robbed of their boat...”

A Chinese junk in the West Sea in the early 20th century / Robert Neff Collection

Apparently, many of the Korean fishermen were upset because the Chinese fishermen did not respect the Koreans and their laws (in regard to when the fishing season began). The British diplomat also suggested there was another point of contention between the two groups of fishermen.

“While the Chinese avail themselves of the fishing on the [Korean] coast and use the [Korean] drying grounds for their fish, they do not, as far as I can learn, pay the [Koreans] for their use,” the consul said.

In September 1884, the Korean Court Gazette noted that unless “an officer is appointed for their [the Chinese fishermen] supervision not only will irregularities occur, illegal traders getting mixed up with bona fide fishing junks, but difficulties may be apprehended in the intercourse of the crews…”

There were plenty of difficulties.

In early March 1885, Friedrich Wilhelm Schultz, a German working for the Korean Customs Service, visited several ports along the west coast. His observations were mainly about these ports’ potential trade, but he also commented about the large number of Chinese fishing boats in Korean waters and the troubles they inflicted upon the Korean population.

“The Chinese fishermen congregate [around several islands near Gunsan] in great numbers, during 3-4 months every year, especially in the herring season. Whether their practice may be detrimental to the native fishing industry, as a loss to the revenue of the country, I am not in a position to judge.”

Boats at Gunsan in the early 20th century / Robert Neff Collection

Apparently, not all of the Chinese vessels in the vicinity were fishing. He reported there were hundreds of Chinese junks of all sizes — “From one-masted boats of 5-10 tons, two, three and four-masted junks up to large five-masted junks, like those trading to and from Shanghai.”

In Gunsan, itself, Schultz recognized a “three-masted Chefoo Junk” that had recently caused problems at Jemulpo (modern Incheon) taking on board a large supply of firewood. He probably wasn’t surprised when, a few hours, later, the junk’s crew were accused of “committing violence of all sorts.”

A Korean woman beseeched Schultz to help her as “the Chinese had taken her husband and another villager prisoners [and] had unmercifully beaten both and other natives as well; nearly smashed the whole house to pieces; and that the Chinese were very angry charging the inhabitants of the village with supplying [Schultz] with some unpleasant information about their doings.”

Schultz informed the villagers to appeal to their local authorities for help. Whether or not they followed his advice is unknown, but the villagers had good reason to worry about the junk because it was armed with an iron cannon. Even more dangerous was a Korean working with the Chinese crew who was accused of “all sorts of extortions and rascalities in the dealings between the two nationalities.”

In November 1886, an Englishman, who once worked for the Korean Customs Service, reported that in beginning of the year, some 600 Chinese junks invaded Korean fishing sites along the west coast.

“The Chinese spread their nets there and catch large quantities of fish — chiefly herring — and take them direct to China. No lease or remuneration of any kind is paid to the Coreans by the invaders…. [In] fact, in all the best fishing grounds; the natives are consequently compelled to fish in the inferior parts and outside the limits of their own [fishing sites].”

There was little the Koreans could do as “about 10% of the [Chinese] junks are armed with cannons … but one and all are armed with pistols, swords and guns.”

According to him, the Korean fishing industry in the Gunsan region used to earn some $40,000 annually, but due to the Chinese poachers, the Koreans “lost about 4/5 of their usual catch.” Due to these “piratical invasions” the unfortunate Korean fishermen were “reduced to a state of the utmost poverty, partial famine and consequent misery…. [they] are literally robbed of their only means of livelihood by these Chinese pirates.”

In May 1887, an English-language newspaper, published in Nagasaki, reported the Korean Peninsula was plagued by “Chinese pirates, disguised as fishermen, who, in addition to robbing, carry on an extensive illicit traffic, which the [Korean] Customs [Service] are powerless to prevent.”

However, when the Chinese authorities became involved, the Chinese pirates and bandits were severely punished. Thirty of these offenders were captured and summarily executed at the Chinese Legation in Seoul.

Even Jeju Island was not safe from Chinese poaching. In the waters around Jeju Island, there was already intense competition between Korean and Japanese fishermen which was further aggravated by the arrival of Chinese fishing boats. In the summer of 1887, a violent incident took place when a group of Chinese fishermen landed for supplies and were met with a hostile group of Japanese fishermen who accused the Chinese of poaching in their waters.

The Chinese haughtily denied the charges of poaching and added that they — the Chinese — “had a far superior right to fish” in Korean waters than the Japanese.

Words were exchanged, then blows, and a crowd of Koreans who had gathered to watch the spectacle were forced to wade in to break up the melee. The Chinese fishermen, not wanting to end their fun, turned upon their Korean hosts. The Koreans fought back. Soon the beach was littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded ― Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. The Chinese and Japanese were forced to retreat to their boats and the islanders were proclaimed the victors ― at least for that day.

Even in the early 20th century, there were problems with Chinese fishermen. Near Chinnampo (now part of Nampo in North Korea) it was reported there were 10,000 Chinese fishing boats poaching but the local authorities were “quite helpless owing to the overwhelming number of Chinese.”

As “all of them [were] armed and often [made] attacks upon [the] Customs’ officials,” armed escorts were essential when confronting the Chinese fishermen.

Even a century later, violent — sometimes fatal — confrontations between the Korean Coast Guard and Chinese fishermen still occur. In December 2011, a Korean Coast Guardsman was stabbed to death by a Chinese fisherman.

South Korea is not the only country struggling with illegal fishing by Chinese fishing boats. Several countries, even North Korea, have been forced to occasionally take drastic measures in an effort to prevent illegal incursions by Chinese fishermen. Recently, President Yoon ordered the Coast Guard to crack down on illegal Chinese fishing, but only time will tell if this will have any impact.

But do these declarations work? In 1712, Kangxi, the emperor of Qing China, issued a decree in which he stated:

“In former times fishing-boats were strictly forbidden to frequent the Korean coast, but at present boats go on the coasts of Korea and fish. This is an act of piracy. Henceforth the Koreans may pursue and capture such persons. If captured alive, they must at once be sent back to China.”

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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Chinese fishermen and the contentious West Sea

25 1
15.04.2024

Gunsan in the early 20th century / Robert Neff Collection

Spring has long been the season for contentious encounters between the Korean Coast Guard and Chinese fishing boats and this year is no exception. As the demand for fish increases and the supply dwindles, the number of violent incidents involving fishing boats will continue to increase. But this is not a new problem.

In the summer of 1884, Chinese fishing boats, numbering between 7,000 and 8,000 junks, were actively fishing along the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. The amount of fish caught was staggering. According to one account, a single haul of the net resulted in enough fish to fill a Chinese junk. Of course, with the increased number of Chinese fishermen, there was bound to be problems.

One Chinese junk was seized by the Korean authorities for the lack of proper documentation causing a diplomatic incident between the two countries and resulting in Liu Chin-chung, the Chinese consul, being called upon to resolve the issue. The consul had a different perspective of the affair. He told a member of the British diplomatic community in Korea that “the Chinese had been robbed of their boat...”

A Chinese junk in the West Sea in the early 20th century / Robert Neff Collection

Apparently, many of the Korean fishermen were upset because the Chinese fishermen did not respect the Koreans and their laws (in regard to when the fishing season began). The British diplomat also suggested there was another point of contention between the two groups of fishermen.

“While the Chinese avail themselves of the fishing on the [Korean] coast and use the [Korean] drying grounds for their fish, they do not, as far as I can learn, pay the [Koreans] for their use,” the consul said.

In September 1884, the Korean Court Gazette noted that unless “an officer is appointed for their [the Chinese fishermen] supervision not only will irregularities occur, illegal traders getting mixed up with bona fide fishing junks, but difficulties may be apprehended in the intercourse of the crews…”

There were plenty of difficulties.

In early March 1885, Friedrich Wilhelm........

© The Korea Times


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