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Yi Sun-shin: Admiral and Savior of Chosŏn Kingdom (1545 – 1598)
Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society
Any record chronicling the Chosŏn Kingdom would not be complete without mention of one of the greatest heroes in Korean history, Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545 – 1598). Born to a family of little importance, suffering defeat and hardship throughout his life, Yi Sun-shin rose to lead the Korean naval forces to victory against impossible odds. His story of loyalty and sacrifice crosses boundaries and borders, inspiring all who hear it. Summarizing Admiral Yi’s career George Alexander Ballard eloquently wrote:
It is always difficult for Englishmen to admit that Nelson ever had an equal in his profession, but if any man is entitled to be so regarded, it should be this great naval commander of Asiatic race who never knew defeat and died in the presence of the enemy; of whose movements a track-chart might be compiled from the wrecks of hundreds of Japanese ships lying with their valiant crews at the bottom of the sea, off the coasts of the Korean peninsula... and it seems, in truth, no exaggeration to assert that from first to last he never made a mistake, for his work was so complete under each variety of circumstances as to defy criticism... His whole career might be summarized by saying that, although he had no lessons from past history to serve as a guide, he waged war on the sea as it should be waged if it is to produce definite results, and ended by making the supreme sacrifice of a defender of his country.(Yi Sun-sin: The Man Who Transforms Korea, “Reputation,” accessed May 18, 2012, http://yisunsin.prkorea.com/reputation1.htm)
Admiral Yi even finds praise from those on the opposite field of battle. A contemporary Japanese general wrote, “Yi Sun-shin is the person who I am afraid of the most, hate the most, love the most, admire and respect the most, wish to kill the most, and want to have tea together the most.”(Yi Sun-sin: The Man Who Transforms Korea, “Reputation,” accessed May 18, 2012.)
Life and Confucian Military Officer
Born into an aristocratic (yangban) family on April 28, 1545 CE, Yi Sun-shin’s parents began the boy’s education in hopes that he would become a great scholar. Like other boys, he studied the Confucian Classics and became well-versed in Classical Chinese. Young Yi Sun-shin also had an affinity for stories of valor and sacrifice in war. With his friends as fellow soldiers, he would fight imaginary battles. This innocent playing would develop into serious training and in his mid-twenties Yi would take the military exam to become an officer. He received high marks in archery, but during the horsemanship test he fell, breaking his leg. Despite climbing back onto the horse and finishing the test with a broken leg, the examiners failed him. He returned four years later to pass the exam with flying colors.
His first assignment sent him to the northern Korean border to defend against the occasional marauding nomads. After several years at that post, he was eventually granted command over a small contingent of troops. One day a group of bandits launched a surprise raid. With most of the soldiers attending the crops in the fields only a handful were left to defend the fort. Captain Yi successfully defended the fort, but with heavy casualties. As the raiders took their booty and began to retreat, Yi Sun-shin charged out of the fort, chasing down the belligerents. Even after an arrow pierced his leg, he did not stop fighting until the raid had fled.
Despite his impeccable honesty and outstanding record of achievement, Yi Sun-shin still experienced setbacks. Many times it was his honesty that got him in trouble. Several times he was reprimanded and even demoted because of his unwillingness to bend the rules. One such case involved one of Yi’s superior officers. The officer tried to advance one of his relatives, despite the fact that the man being advanced was unqualified. Yi rejected the advancement, stating that a man should be advanced because of his skill not his connections. Later on that superior came as an inspector to one of Yi’s command posts and sent a discriminatingly false letter to the government, reporting that there was a lack of discipline and order at the post. This false appraisal cost Yi Sun-shin his job and he was forced to resign from the military for a time.1
The government eventually reinstated Yi and promoted him to serve as the Right Naval Commander of Chŏlla Province in 1591. This position oversaw the navy in the south western portion of Korea. This post also came at the opportune time. Because the Chosŏn Kingdom had enjoyed relative peace for decades, military standards sagged depressingly low.
The Japanese Challenge
To men like Yi Sun-shin, this was very alarming. Recently the Chosŏn government had received reports that Japan had unified, under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and that he was preparing for an invasion. Most Koreans saw Japan as a country of little importance and did not believe the reports. Some did heed the warnings though, Yi Sun-shin being one of the foremost among them.
Yi, now an admiral, worked tirelessly to prepare for war. He drastically improved standards and worked to heighten discipline. He also emphasized the research and development of new weapons, tactics, and technology. It was at this time that he and his soldiers started to fully develop the Turtle Ship (Kŏbuksan), arguably the world’s first iron clad ship. Under his command, soldiers also developed new long-range cannons to counter Japanese boarding tactics.
In April 1592, the Japanese launched their invasion for the Korean Peninsula. They first attacked Pusan, a city on the southeastern coast. Wŏn Kyun, the commanding naval officer over the Pusan region, offered no resistance to the Japanese invasion force. He instead headed for the hills to try and save his own life. The Japanese forces capitalized on the opportunity and quickly took the city of Pusan. The invasion swiftly made its way up the Korean peninsula and a month later overtook Seoul. This quick advance by land forced the Japanese to look for alternative ways to resupply their troops. Instead of shipping supplies over land, they hoped to establish a sea-route to deliver supplies. The only thing standing in their way was Admiral Yi.
Battles over the Sea
As the Japanese looked for a way to either defeat Admiral Yi or sneak past him, Yi Sun-shin used a network of farmers and fishermen informants to pick battle sites that were to his advantage. In his first engagement, the Battle of Okpo, Yi caught the Japanese unaware as they were busy plundering at the port where they were anchored. The enemy sailors had little chance of defending themselves and the Korean ships sailed away intact. Later in the Battle of Sachŏn, he lured the Japanese out of their stronghold and into a trap using a feigned retreat, resulting in another victory.
In one of his most famous battles, the Battle of Hansan Island, Admiral Yi attacked at the heart of one of the Japanese’s main bases with only six ships. Believing that the ships were an unfortunate scouting party, the Japanese ships hastily attacked the Koreans. As the Korean ships retreated from the attack, they passed through a narrow channel. As the Japanese ships exited the channel in pursuit of the six ships they were surprised to find Admiral Yi’s fleet awaiting them.
The Japanese were soon surrounded by Korean war vessels on all sides. The Koreans shot volley after volley of cannon balls into the closely crowded Japanese ships. Although outnumbered four ships to three, Admiral Yi’s fleet succeeded in destroying sixty-six of the seventy-three Japanese ships without losing one of their own. The remaining Japanese ships limped back to Pusan, requiring Toyotomi Hideyoshi to order a halt of naval activities outside the vicinity of Pusan. These naval victories helped turn the tide of the war. In addition to these victories at sea, reinforcement armies from Ming China helped force the Japanese to retreat.
In 1594 China, Japan, and Korea began negotiations to end the war. These negotiations failed however, and in 1597 Hideyoshi sent a massive army to regain control of the peninsula. Still fearing Yi Sun-shin’s naval dominance, the Japanese military command devised a way to destroy Yi Sun-shin from the inside.
Throughout the war, the Japanese invasion force had used double agents to not only gather information, but also to feed false information to the Koreans. One of these agents fed false information to the Korean forces, saying that a large fleet was safely anchored in a vulnerable harbor. When the Chosŏn court ordered that Admiral Yi attack, he refused. His own agents had informed Admiral Yi of the actual size and power of the fleet and had advised against an attack at that location.
Yi’s longtime rival Wŏn Kyun, still harboring jealousy for Admiral Yi, used this refusal as a way to pull down Admiral Yi. Wŏn Kyun and his allies claimed that Admiral Yi had disobeyed orders. They sent a petition to King Sŏnjo (r. 1567 – 1608) requesting not only Yi’s removal from admiral, but also his execution. Several of Yi’s close associates and supporters vehemently opposed such action, thus saving him from the death penalty. Instead of executing Yi, Sŏnjo and those with Wŏn Kyun imprisoned him, had him beaten, and demoted him to the rank of foot soldier.
Wŏn Kyun, now in command of the Chosŏn fleet, decided to attack that Japanese fleet. Wŏn Kyun committed the entire Korean navy to the attack because he trusted in the double-agents information. The battle was massacre and only twelve Korean ships escaped the trap. Realizing his mistake, the king apologetically reinstated Yi Sun-shin.
After being released from his imprisonment, Admiral Yi returned to the sea to find only twelve vessels remaining. King Sŏnjo suggested that Admiral Yi scuttle the boats and contribute to the land war. In a humble, yet firm reply Admiral Yi wrote, “Only twelve ships remain. I will do my duty and fight against the enemy to the last man. If we abolished our naval forces, it would only be to their advantage.”2
Return to Battle
Despite their fears of Admiral Yi, the Japanese sent a force of just over three hundred Japanese ships to destroy the Korean navy. As Admiral Yi retreated from his pursuers, he devised a daring strategy to escape. Admiral Yi planned to pass through a small channel, the Myŏngnyang Strait, where he would use the narrow passage to his advantage.
As the Korean ships retreated through the channel, only a third of the Japanese ships were able to squeeze into the passage. The deep-keeled Japanese ships were quicker than the Korean ships and soon caught up to the thirteen flat-bottomed Korean ships in the fast current. In what seemed like a last ditch effort, Admiral Yi spun his own ship around and launched into the oncoming ships.
Admiral’s ship soon stood alone, taking heavy fire, as the other Korean vessels sped away in full retreat. Showing no fear, Admiral Yi jumped into the fray shouting words of encouragement to his sailors and shooting arrows at the enemy ships. Inspired by their leader’s courage, the other Korean ships halted their retreat and came alongside the command ship. In a miraculous turn of events, the Koreans fended off the first wave of ships until the tide of the battle literally changed. Admiral Yi had entered the strait knowing that the tide switched every few hours. On their way into the strait, the tide had pushed them out the narrowest part of the strait, now it began to pull them back into the narrowest section. The Korean ships, with their low keels, were able to easily maneuver in the narrow passage. The bulky Japanese ships however, began to collide with each other as the tide sucked them back through the channel. In addition to the tide, Admiral Yi had previously laid a large chain across the channel. This trapped the Japanese ships in the channel. The strong tide, Admiral Yi’s continuous assault with long range cannons, and the chain destroyed upwards of thirty Japanese ships and severely damaged ninety. All thirteen Korean ships stayed afloat. Despite all odds, Admiral Yi successfully outmaneuvered the Japanese force, reestablishing Korean naval dominance.
His Final Victory and Death
With the success at Myŏngnyang as proof of Admiral Yi’s abilities, the Ming navy traveled south to assist Yi’s forces. Together with the Chinese, Admiral Yi started to seek and destroy the remaining Japanese ships as they inched closer to Pusan, the Japanese headquarters. Seeing that Chosŏn and Ming forces were quickly closing in on his forces on both land and sea, Hideyoshi ordered a retreat. Shortly after ordering the retreat, Hideyoshi died, taking with him the driving force behind the invasion.
Either ignorant of the retreat or determined to see all the Japanese leave, Yi continued to hunt down Japanese ships. He and the Ming general, Chen Lin, eventually cornered the Japanese in the Noryang Strait. Vastly outnumbering the allied forces, the Japanese tried to push their way through the Allied blockade. The battle lasted for hours as the allied forces slowly wore down the Japanese. Towards the end of the battle several ships slipped by and Admiral Yi chased after them. A stray bullet struck Admiral Yi in the left armpit. Knowing the wound to be fatal, he charged those standing by him, his son and nephew, and commanded them to cover him with a shield so as not demoralize the troops. Unaware of their commander’s death, the sailors pressed on letting only a fraction of the enemy’s forces escape.
Upon discovering that Admiral Yi Sun-shin had died, many of the men fell down and wept. Despite their loss, they had won, bringing Admiral Yi’s sea battle count to twenty-three wins and zero losses. As in other times of his life, he had sacrificed his own life for the sake of others and his country. His body was returned to Asan, his hometown, for burial. Posthumously, both the Chosŏn and Ming royal courts awarded him numerous honors. The Chosŏn court gave him the posthumous name, Duke of Loyalty and Warfare, or Chungmugong. Today, statues of Admiral Yi and shrines dedicated to him dot the Korean landscape.
Hoping to inspire his men at the start of the Battle of Myŏngnyang he cried, if you search for life you shall find death, but in searching for death you shall find life. Yi Sun-shin never sought for and never received the honor he deserved in this life. Ironically and unfortunately, only after his death did he receive the glory that matched the magnificence of his character and the magnitude of his sacrifice.
Jo, Sung-do.Yi Sun-shin: A National Hero of Korea. South Korea: Choongmoo-kong Society. 1984.
Reputation, Yi Sun-sin: The Man Who Transforms Korea, accessed May 18, 2012, http://yisunsin.prkorea.com/reputation1.htm