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Maritime Control Policy in Chosŏn Korea and Ming China

For my high school history class back in 2014, I vaguely recall learning about the Japanese mainland's isolationist principles and America's imperialistic attempts to forcibly open up trade with the island nation in 1853  (“Office of the Historian”). In the 1850s westerners might have thought of Japan as a true isolationist nation. But, what westerners at the time might have thought of as “isolationist”  might simply have been how they interpreted a country’s stricter border protection policies.

 I found it Interesting that the Chosŏn dynasty also implemented its own set of strict border protection and maritime policies in 1392. I learned it was important to know that there are two primary reasons for the stricter border controls in Chosŏn Korea as compared to those in the western world. The first has to do with Korea's place as a tributary state of China, and the second has to do with anti-piracy policies against the Japanese (Siu 27). The key to understanding Korea’s border policy is how Chosŏn Korea’s decision-making was influenced by its relationship with foreign powers, an issue that persists in Korean even today with the splitting of North and South Korea in relation to America due to its previous rivalry with the now defunct U.S.S.R. 

I think I can safely say there are a variety of opinions regarding what influenced the Chosŏn dynasty’s border protection policies. What we do know is that one of the biggest contributors was the Ming Dynasty.  One reason for modeling Korean law after China’s own laws was that the Chosŏn dynasty became a vassal state of Ming China. Becoming a vassal state was a survival strategy because China had invaded Korea repeatedly over the past millennium (Wang 17). That being said, Chosŏn also looked to Ming China for ideological reasons, given that Chosŏn Korea was also a newly emerging Neo-Confucian state (Park 118). These factors, Korea becoming a tributary state of China, and the ideological similarities, encouraged Chosŏn Korea to implement parts of the Great Ming Code, along with many of the trade restrictions that came with it (Siu 9). I will discuss Korea’s maritime restriction policies and compare them to what we know about China and Japan around the same period by drawing on a study titled, “Maritime Exclusion Policy in Ming China and Chosŏn Korea, 1368–1450,” a dissertation written by Yiu Siu in 2022.

The Great Ming Code was a law book which governed China from 1368 to 1644. In line with the Ming Code’s border policies, people residing in the country were punished for many crimes involving maritime activities, such as export restrictions and high sea trade (Siu 9). Not only that, but private navigation was also almost completely banned until 1568. A good example of the influence of the Great Ming Code in Chosŏn Korea is the legal provisions against private sailing (Siu 11). Another example are the restrictions on private navigation, though Chosŏn did not completely ban it as Ming had done. (Siu 12).

While there are similarities between Chosŏn Korea, Japan, and Ming China, there are also differences that should be noted. For example, Japan’s kaikin policy, which is a well-known trade restriction policy implemented by Japan, was very restrictive on both exit and entry with regards to maritime border activity. The term kaikin was first discovered in 1633 (Siu 17). On the other hand, China and Korea mostly sought to prevent its own population from trading and going out to sea without a permit. This did not mean that the Chinese and Koreans did not control foreign activity, but rather the terms haijin, and haegŭm meant something very different from Kaikin, even though all three are words represented by the same Chinese characters and can be translated as “sea ban.” (Siu 16). It is useful to think of haijin and haegŭm only in reference to border exit policies, which the Chosŏn dynasty enforced with lesser emphasis than the Ming had done (Siu 3).

In some cases, Chosŏn placed maritime restrictions to protect the Chosŏn people from piracy. It imposed restrictions that required ships to sail out in groups of at least five in order to ward off potential pirates (Siu 10). It also required that vessels engaged in coastal shipping be under the supervision of the coastal guard because Chosŏn ships were frequent targets of Wako pirates, a term originally used to describe pirates of Japanese origin. Because of the tension with Japanese pirates, the government also implemented various trade restrictions against the Japanese which sought to regulate border entry into the country. The main idea was to create policies that transformed potentially hostile Japanese sailors into friendlier traders (Siu 25-26).  Initially, it was really hard for the Chosŏn government to implement trade restrictions on the Japanese. For example, yhere was a lack of communication between the upper and lower levels of government command with regards to restrictive Japanese trading activity in the Chŏlla Province (Siu 9). The communication issue prompted King T’aejong to ramp up awareness of the law in 1413.

I think the best way to describe Korea's maritime border controls is as a mix of anti-excursion and piracy prevention policies. The story of Chosŏn Korea’s border policy is one of geopolitical strategy, Ideology, and maritime security. Therefore, it might be useful to think of these border policies as a response to Japan and China's relationship with Korea itself.


"Maritime Exclusion Policy in Ming China and Chosŏn Korea, 1368-1450: Dynastic Authority, National Security, and Trade.” First Page Source: Creator: Yiu Siu Date: 2022


Jay Gibbs, “Maritime Control Policy in Chosŏn Korea and Ming China,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 12, 2024,