By Yang Sung-jin
Last week, the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin in Sejongno, downtown Seoul, was washed with specially treated soap and water, drawing onlookers on the sidewalk. The annual washing ceremony is to preserve this image of the national hero, who was born on April 28, 1545 — which happens to be today.
This year also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Admiral Yi, who was killed by a stray bullet in the naval battle which concluded the devastating seven-year-long war against the Japanese (1592-98).
The admiration of the Choson admiral is universal in Korea. Yi’s poems, showcasing his unparalleled allegiance to the country, are still taught to middle and high school students. To commemorate Admiral Yi’s dedication to safeguarding the nation, various events and ceremonies are planned for the anniversary.
It should be noted that the widespread admiration for Admiral Yi, almost to the level of worship now, is partly due to the heightened nationalism which characterized the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945). Historians such as Shin Chae-ho wrote biographies of Yi in order to offer hope to Koreans suffering from the merciless rule of imperialist Japanese forces.
Another contributing factor was the hero-making by former president Park Chung-hee. In the 1970’s, Park ordered a large-scale renovation of Yi’s shrine in Asan, Chungchong-namdo, in a bid to orchestrate a national cult of worship for him. This is now viewed as a move aimed at justifying Park’s military dictatorial rule by idealizing a fellow military hero.
Of course, all of this does not change the fact that Admiral Yi was, indeed, a great military leader, who saved a nation on the verge of the total destruction at the hands of longtime enemy, Japan.
All records of Admiral Yi are well-preserved in the CD-ROM “Annals of the Choson Dynasty.” There are a total of 178 articles related to Yi therein.
“The Annals of the Choson Dynasty does not mention Yi as many times as people today imagine it does,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.
But considering that Yi was a military officer — a class deemed inferior to the literati — the number of articles clearly suggests Yi was viewed and recorded with special attention by the Choson historiographers, Lee added.
Yi was born in Seoul to a family whose members traditionally served as a civil officials. The reason that Yi chose a contradictory path is, at best, guesswork. The predominant opinion now is that his family, then in decline, was unable to afford the fees necessary to send their four sons to take the state examination for the civil service.
Furthermore, Yi showed an aptitude for the military: he was good at archery and horseback-riding.
Nevertheless, Yi fell off his horse during the National Examination at the age of 28 and broke his left leg, failing the exam. In 1576, he tried again and this time passed it at the age of 32, starting his career at the lowest rank in the military.
Ten years later, Yi was involved in an incident, which marks the first official record about Yi in the entire Annals of the Choson Dynasty. To the reader’s dismay, especially those who harbor unwavering admiration for him, the first article mentioning Yi was not about a heroic act, but about his negligence of duty.
The article, dated Oct. 10, 1587, states that officials Lee Kyong-rok and Yi Sun-shin were arrested on charges of failing to defend a fortress against the Turchin’s sudden attack, killing 10 Choson people and taking 106 Koreans as hostage.
The truth of the matter is that Yi called for reinforcements from the central government, seeing the possibility of an attack from the northern barbarians, only to be flatly rejected.
Yi was discharged from the military because of the incident and was only reinstated later as a soldier without rank.
With the help of his childhood friend and then high-ranking official Yu Song-ryong, Yi climbed the ladder and was appointed as left naval station commander of Cholla province in 1591.
As soon as he took up the post, Yi lost no time in putting all his efforts to the task of enhancing the military preparedness of the agricultural Cholla region. He ordered the construction of naval battleships, including “kobukson,” (turtle ships), while securing food for the troops.
War broke out in 1592 as the 200,000-strong Japanese army aboard 700 battleships invaded the Choson Kingdom. The Choson naval force of southeastern Kyongsang province was shattered by the surprise attack. At this point, the Choson navy is estimated to have owned some 220 battleships, a meager fighting power compared with Japan’s.
“One reason for admiring Admiral Yi is the fact that he won battle after battle despite the Choson navy’s poor condition in terms of military power,” researcher Lee said.
With urgent messages for help flooding in from Kyongsang province, Yi ordered his ships to set sail for the point where the Japanese ships were spotted on May 4. Three days later, Admiral Yi found and attacked about 30 Japanese battleships which were moored ashore and whose crews were pillaging the village. The outcome was that 26 Japanese ships were sunk, and countless Japanese were dead. This battle is now called the “Okpo Sea Battle,” marking as it did the first engagement between the Choson and Japanese navies.
Encouraged by his first successful operation, Admiral Yi crushed another 30 Japanese battleships near Tangpo. It was at this particular battle that the kobuksons were first employed, adding badly needed power to the Choson naval force.
On July 6, Admiral Yi garnered an unprecedented victory over the Japanese navy. With only 50 ships, the Choson navy fought with 73 Japanese battleships, destroying 47 of them, and capturing 12. The battle, called “Hansan Victory,” is now regarded one of the rarest instances of victory by an inferior fighting force in the world history of naval battles.
In 1593, the government acknowledged Admiral Yi’s achievements and appointed him as the commander-in-chief of all the southern provinces of Choson.
As the war entered a phase of peace negotiations amidst sporadic battle, Admiral Yi devoted himself to further building up his military forces, to taking care of refugees, and to encouraging the commerce of civilians under the auspices of his naval force.
Most commoners hailed Yi as the only leader to rely on. But some officials in the central government did not think so. An article dated June 26, 1596 showed that an opinion against Admiral Yi was also held by the king: “Yi Sun-shin fought hard initially, but later he did not do his best. And I doubt his fidelity because he rarely defeats the enemy.”
Worse, Admiral Yi was later embroiled in a case of slander orchestrated by a Japanese spy and imprisoned on March 4, 1597. At this point, Yi was sentenced to death on charges of betraying the nation and neglecting his duties. Later, he was saved by a high-ranking official Chong Tak and freed as a plain soldier, again without any rank.
All of which was the prelude to the destruction of the Choson naval force. In 1597, the Japanese mounted another large-scale attack on the Choson. In July, commander Won Kyun led the Choson navy against the Japanese naval force but the result was considerably worse than expected. Won Kyun’s Choson navy was utterly defeated and destroyed by the Japanese navy because of his poor leadership. With the sinking of the Choson battleships, what Admiral Yi had achieved over the past years was sent down as well.
The Choson government was flabbergasted at the news of the devastated navy. Officials ultimately put forward the idea of re-appointing Yi as naval commander in order to once more confront the Japanese forces.
King Sonjo had nothing much to say of his terrible prior judgment: “Last time, I wrongly deprived you of your official post and punished you, but that was because I did not know the situation very well, and as all humans are likely to make mistakes.”
Mistake or not, Yi was re-appointed as commander-in-chief on Aug. 3. Yet, all the military equipment and soldiers, to which he had put all his energies, were gone. Welcoming him were the 120 soldiers still remaining in the barracks and 12 battleships.
On Aug. 15, Admiral Yi confronted the Japanese navy with his 12 ships, despite strong opposition from the government. The result was simply a miracle. Yi not only fought successfully with 133 Japanese battleships but actually destroyed 31 of them, which played a critical role in reversing the tide of the war in favor of the Choson forces.
With the news of victory of Admiral Yi, people and soldiers began to rush to his station in Kokum Island, now near Mokpo. On Nov. 19, 1598, Yi launched an attack on the retreating Japanese army aboard 500 battleships. Along with the Ming China’s reinforcement navy, Yi led the battle, which turned out to be the battle which concluded the Japanese Invasion. It was also Yi’s last battle.
Directing the battle against the Japanese, Admiral Yi was shot in the chest by a stray bullet and died on his boat. The annals record Yi’s last remark: “The battle is urgent now. Don’t let the soldiers know that I am dying.”
The battle couldn’t have been more successful. Nevertheless, sadness at Yi’s death overshadowed the victory. The Ming China’s navy commander Chen Lin slipped from his chair at news of Yi’s death and began to cry. The Choson soldiers and the Korean people could not stop bemoaning his death.
In fact, the hearse carrying Yi’s dead body was often stopped on the road by weeping mourners.
The Annals of the Choson Dynasty also laments the death of Yi, whose life was devoted to saving the nation in times of crisis against the Japanese aggressor: “He sacrificed his body for the nation and his life out of fidelity. Nothing can be compared with his achievements. Alas! The government was ignorant of his true character, which prevented him from further fulfilling his destiny.”