By Yang Sung-jin
The prosecution summons former high-ranking officials to prove whether top economic policymakers ignored repeated warnings of an economic downturn, which resulted in a nation’s devastating financial turmoil. If this sounds like a current event, it is and it isn’t.
About 400 years ago, critical negligence by political leaders on the Korean peninsula brought on a much more devastating situation than the present economic downturn — the Japanese Invasion of 1592. In the 16th century, the Choson Dynasty began to fall apart at its roots.
With intensifying struggles among factions in the central government, the public was forced to endure a miserable life with no hope in sight.
“The most serious problem at the time was the rule requiring the turning in of local produce to the central government on a regular basis even if the harvest was bad, amid the widespread corruption in the officials involved,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.
The military system of the Choson Kingdom was also showing symptoms suggesting total and imminent disorder. While the high class yangban literati were exempt from military duties, the middle and lower classes were pushed to the barracks, where they were subject to the demands of completing government projects.
Across the East Sea, Japan was making continuous threats of an invasion. Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded in unifying the country in 1567, concluding a series of internal disorders called the “Age of Warring States.”
Hideyoshi recognized the need to wage a foreign war, in order to strengthen national unity and undermine the local governor’s influence. From the early 1590’s, Japan constantly voiced its intention to the Choson government to launch an attack on Ming China through Korea.
Confusing the issue was a report submitted by Choson envoys who had been to Japan with the mission of detecting any serious threat there.
Official Kim Sung-il reported to the king that Japan could not invade Choson. Meanwhile, Official Hwang Yun-kil said the possibility of war was real. Ultimately, Kim’s opinion was believed only because he belonged to the ruling faction despite the fact that the majority of envoys expressed their conviction that war was imminent.
On April 13, at around 5 p.m., some 200,000 Japanese soldiers landed on the shores of the southern port city of Pusan, starting a devastating 7-year war. How unprepared the Choson government officials were for actual warfare is well illustrated in the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty.
As the invasion began, Chong Pal, commander of the Pusan garrison, was out hunting on a nearby island. Seeing the Japanese ships, Chung thought they were coming to Choson to offer tributes in return for food, and resumed hunting. At the same time, the hunting of human lives had begun.
By the time Chong returned to his office, the Japanese soldiers had taken control of the region by slaughtering innocent people, who desperately ran for their lives, and pillaging their homes. In this manner, the Pusan fortress fell into the hands of the Japanese. Chong was killed in the battle.
As the Japanese forces launched a three-pronged attack northward towards Seoul, some local magistrates and military leaders lost no time in packing their bags and deserting their hometown in order to save their own lives, thus resulting in an easy victory for the Japanese.
It was only four days after the first battle in Pusan when the central Choson government realized that the situation was uncontrollable. It organized its forces belatedly, but by that time the only news that reached officials, including King Sonjo, was of successive defeats.
The Choson government was forced to seriously consider the king’s flight. Despite strong opposition, in the early hours of April 30, King Sonjo took flight toward Uiju on the Yalu River with only 100 officials and servants.
Unfortunately, people living in the main district of Seoul were barred from doing likewise and getting out, bringing about a scene of pandemonium marked by violence and chaos. The royal palaces were set fire, presumably by slaves intent on eliminating the slave registry, after having been pillaged of royal treasures by thieves.
All of which deeply angered the populace at large. As King Sonjo made his way northward, ordinary citizens often blocked his way, hurling insults and blaming his incompetence and irresponsibility for having brought on the situation.
The Japanese army trampled the defenseless Choson territory. The speedy victories were largely due to the Japanese military forces considerable experience in land warfare, gained through numerous campaigns during the period of Warring States, and to their possession of rifles, which they had obtained from Portugal in 1543.
These two factors combined to overwhelm the untrained Choson army.
Not that a successful defense was completely impossible, even under the circumstances. The Annals record the situation in detail, and much of this information suggests there were opportunities to fight back. For instance, the Japanese army seized Seoul on May 2, less than 20 days after they set foot in Pusan. But if the Seoul commanders had done their best to defend the capital, they could have dealt a serious blow to the Japanese army. But they did not, but just ran away. The truth was that the Japanese army was extremely tired after 20 days of uninterrupted marching from Pusan and would have been susceptible to resistance.
In contrast to the cowardly acts of officials and military leaders, the populace emerged as the defender of the nation. Guerilla forces, composed of yangban literati, peasant farmers and even slaves, sprang into existence across the nation, and began mounting hit-and-run attacks on the Japanese forces.
At the same time, the Choson Navy was able to defend the strategically important, harvest-rich Cholla province, thanks to Naval Commander of Left Cholla province, Yi Sun-sin, who earned a victory in battle after battle, smashing the Japanese fleet.
In December, Ming China sent a 30,000-strong relief army to Choson to fight off the Japanese. Along with the Choson soldiers, the Ming army, led by Li Ju-sung, mounted an attack on the Japanese army, which had occupied the city of Pyongyang. With heavy casualties having been suffered on both sides, the Japanese finally gave up the city and retreated, signaling a turning point in the war.
The war now entered into a new phase. With peace negotiations under way between Ming China and Japan, the Japanese army pulled back to the areas in Kyongsang province, while still intermittently attacking villages.
Finally, truce talks were ruptured, and Hideyoshi launched a second campaign to conquer Choson in 1597. By this time, however, the Choson military had been re-organized and trained for battle against the Japanese.
In the wake of several unsuccessful battles, the morale of the Japanese army plunged. With Hideyoshi’s sudden death in 1598, an end was brought to the war with the Japanese army’s complete retreat to Japan.
The cost to the Choson kingdom of the avoidable war with Japan was considerable. The population of the country had decreased markedly, making for severe famine and the spread of disease. Moreover, the destruction of the land and census registers made it difficult for the government to collect taxes, thus putting government affairs in similar disarray.
The loss of the Choson’s cultural treasures through pillaging by the Japanese was also enormous. Major palaces, including Kyongbok Palace, were burned down, and priceless official documents and records were turned into ashes.
Even the Annals of the Choson Dynasty, stored in three of the four History Archives were destroyed. Luckily, two scholars in the Chonju Archive preserved the Annals at the risk of their own lives, thus enabling its entire re-publication after the war.
In contrast, Japan benefited most from the war. Hideyoshi had instructed his military commander to kidnap Choson technicians, artists and potters, and their presence in Japan provided a great advance in Japanese arts and technology. In addition, Japan had brought back countless books, which had a great impact on the development of Neo-Confucianism in Japan in the centuries to come.
“The Japanese Invasion of 1592 is a telling example of how irresponsible and incapable leaders of a nation render the lives of the nation’s populace miserable,” researcher Lee Nam-hee said. Also telling is the recent move by the prosecution aimed at indicting those irresponsible policymakers of today, charged with negligence of their duties, which culminated in the current “miserable” economic situation.