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Secret Story of Cross-Border Smuggling

Introduction by Joseph Seeley, University of Virginia.

Smuggling had long thrived along the fluid Sino-Korean border spaces of the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, but a number a factors caused it to explode—both in terms of sheer numbers and pop cultural impact—during the early 1930s. Rural impoverishment in Depression-era northern Korea pushed many cash-strapped Koreans to participate in the border region’s illicit economies. The border city of Sinŭiju, in particular, became known as a smuggler’s haven, with thousands of its Korean residents relying on smuggling for their daily sustenance. Also contributing to this explosion in smuggling was the uneven regulatory landscape of the Korean-Manchukuo border. One would think that Japanese control of both colonial Korea and the puppet state of Manchukuo (created in northeast China in 1932) would negate such issues. But imperial authorities in Korea and Manchukuo frequently clashed over issues of smuggling enforcement—a divide eagerly exploited by desperate smugglers and their corrupt merchant backers.

Into this milieu of rural poverty and competing imperial sovereignties stepped the figure of the female Korean smuggler, who became both a regulatory headache for border officials and a sympathetic stock character for colonial Korean writers. Writing about these figures allowed colonial Korean authors, many of them comfortably removed from the actual precarity and everyday violence these women experienced, to comment on the prevailing gender, ethnic, and economic inequalities of colonial Korea. Examples of this literature include feminist author Kang Kyŏng-ae’s short story "Salt" (1934), as well as frequent and dramatic reporting of confrontations between Korean smugglers and Manchukuo customs and police officials in newspapers like the Tonga ilbo and Chosŏn ilbo.

Published in the magazine Samch’ŏlli (Samcheolli), the story below about an unnamed female smuggler reflects this urban fascination with people driven to gamble their lives on the northern border. Samch’ŏlli was one of the longest surviving mass culture magazines in colonial Korea. Founded in 1929 and published continuously until 1941, it achieved popular acclaim through a combination of sensationalized reporting, gossip columns, and wide-ranging commentary on the politics and trends of the time.

Discussion Questions:

What does this story tell us about gender relations in colonial-era Korea? What can we learn about life along the border for people like this smuggler? Presented in the voice of a female Korean smuggler, does this account feel authentic to you? What motivated the author to write this piece? What does it say about Japanese colonialism during this period?

Source Information:

[The original publication]: "Kukkyŏng milsuip pihwa," Samch' ŏlli, vol. 5, January 1, 1933, pgs. 123-124.

[The location of the material]:


Secret Story of Cross-Border Smuggling

國境X生 (Kukkyŏng X Saeng)

That day in 1932.

When writing down this diary, I specially use the unknown date, ‘that day’, and the anonym ‘X’. The reason is that the nation’s laws strictly prohibit smuggling. But I am relieved that this diary I am now writing will never make me unhappy, because it is only a copy of sentences about a finished act.

Three of us accomplices had breakfast at 7 a.m. Shinŭiju time. We then set a time and place to meet again and parted ways.

I crossed the iron bridge over the Amnok (Yalu) River through that road and ran to the streets of Andong County in China. In exchange for some iron coins wet with sweat, I got my hands on two toe (3.6 liters) of hoju (Chinese liquor). Well, the problem starts here. I wrapped the hoju bottles in several layers of gunny cloth. There were only 30 minutes left till the appointed time of nine o’clock. I got off the rickshaw at the fishing grounds on the Andong side of the bridge.

My footsteps stopped at Shinŭiju’s riverbank on the right side of the bridge. Looking down beneath the bridge, my two partners, as promised, were already between the rafts piled up on the riverside hill, waiting for the bottles to come down. The customs were no more than a few tens of kan (1 kan = 181.8 centimeters) away. Over there, the sharp eyes of cold murderous customs officers, guards, police officers and others radiated with terrifying malice. There are even armed guards underneath the bridge, doing their best to tighten security.

My heart trembled violently. But the two bottles of liquor hanging from a hemp rope, like a corpse hung by the neck, descended a few chang (1 chang = 3.03 meters) down to the bottom of the bridge, and the tremors in my hands ceased. The two comrades standing below fiercely and ferociously took the liquor, as if they were a lion who had starved for three days. I simply vanished without a trace into the river, quick as a flash.

“Hey, you!” The resounding voice of a guard shook the river water. Ah, but it was already too late. Before I knew it, I had come into the safe zone. That was the success of this day, a holy sublimity.

That other day in 1932.

“Honey, of course it’s important to eat, and money is precious, but how can we do that? I really can’t do it.”

“Come on, honey. You’re saying that you can’t blush slightly, bow your head and say ‘I… I have puinbyŏng (women’s disease) now…’? I see…”

I had this conversation with my young wife early this morning in bed, about smuggling chudan (silk goods). To put theory into practice, we went out on the streets.

From here on is my young wife's diary.

Though my face may be dark as a millstone, I am considered a young beautiful woman. That’s the reason why the head of the household bites, sucks, and tells me off day and night--because he can’t live without me. But now that I think about it, it seems like he’s just planning to use me for this strange business. Whatever it is, they say that a wife must follow her husband (even if it means trouble), so I shall go on this big adventure and engage in dramatic acting, just as my husband told me to.

“Those rough hands of the customs officer leave no corner untouched, just like a fire iron going in and out of a countryside fireplace. How on earth am I going to wrap the silk around my body?”

As I looked at my body gradually becoming like Tebukkun (Fatty Arbuckle), I had a lot of groundless fears. “No, maybe I should wrap lots of it in my lower abdomen and trick them into thinking that I’m in my final month of pregnancy…! But if they poked me, they would know that’s not true. Then I would have no choice but to hide a little bit at my breasts and a little bit over “there.”

“Honey! Come here. I don't have anything on me.” The custom officer’s sensitive fingertips had already searched my upper body.

“Oh, my goodness. I don’t have anything at all…” Looking hard at my face, the customs officer searched my whole body from top to bottom gradually. I shook off his hands to prevent his fingers from coming close to the important parts.

“That seems suspicious to me. What's so thick there, huh?”

“Oh my. A married woman is no different from a man. I'm so embarrassed. There’s nothing here.”

“Be straightforward with me. And put it out here. Quickly, quickly.”

“I… It happens to be that… time for me now. I’m having puinbyŏng (women’s disease) now. It feels better now that the bleeding has stopped. It’s stained so stickily.”

Ah. A long sigh. A hearty laugh whose meaning I won’t understand. Surrounded by three rolls of silk in the low-ceiling and small ondol (underfloor heating) room, my husband, me, my small son and my old mother had a moment of silence. I enjoy this honor(?) because I am a woman. But I wonder what would have happened if my lies had been revealed. Oh, that’s scary. Embarrassing. I am now resolved not to take on such an adventure again.

(Translated by Jovanne Tan Li Qi)

The iron bridge over Yalu River [1911]

[Selective Readings]:

Joseph Seeley, “Liquid Geography: The Yalu River and the Boundaries of Empire in East Asia, 1894–1945” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 2019). Discusses colonial-era smuggling along the Yalu River in chapters 4 and 5.

Yi Ŭnja. "Chungil chŏnjaeng ijŏn sigi Chungguk ŭi kukkyŏng tosi Andong ŭi ijumin—kyoryu wa kaltŭng ŭi ijungju." Chungguk kŭnhyŏndaesa 62 (June 2014): 95-127.

Korean-language article that offers a detailed look at Korean migrant society in the Manchurian city of Andong (across the Yalu River border from Sinŭiju) prior to 1937, including the prevalence of smuggling.

Ambaras, David. Japan’s Imperial Underworlds: Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018: Offers a comparative look at Japanese imperial anxieties over the regulation of borders and female bodies along the South Chinese littoral.


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