(12) Hideyoshi Forces Invade Korea in 1592

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.

Avoidable War

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.

Turning Point

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.

(11) Tsushima, An Island of Conflicts

By Yang Sung-jin

It is a pity that Japan unilaterally scrapped the fisheries agreement with Korea earlier this year. The Japanese know better than anyone else that such a move will anger Koreans, who harbor long-running grudges against Japan. Yet, Korean fishing boats were seized by the Japanese authorities in its arguable restricted waters.

In understanding the Korea-Japan conflicts, nothing is better than the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty filled with detailed information about relations between the two neighboring countries. Interestingly, the Annals demonstrates that Japan frequently kidnapped Koreans, including those on fishing boats, back in the mid-14th century.

The inhuman acts were mostly committed by the seaborne Japanese marauders or “waegu,” who raided and pillaged the Korean villages.

The central place where the waegu indulged in the reckless piracy was Tsushima island, only 49.5 kilometers away from the southern port city of Pusan. In fact, the Annals contains almost countless entries referring to Tsushima, suggesting its importance as the point where the two nations often collided with each other head-on.

The seriousness of the situation the intractable waegu caused is well reflected in the Annals’ account of the strengthening of the Choson naval force.

Yi Song-gye, founder of the Choson Dynasty, and the succeeding kings in the earlier period put much effort into increasing the naval power in an effort to confront the waegu. A document dated 1408 shows that the number of military ships reached as many as 613, with some 55,000 soldiers in the naval force.

King Taejong (reign: 1400-1418) was particularly concerned with building up naval power. An article of the year 1420 shows the king’s enthusiasm even two years after he formally retired from the royal office.

Participating in a field training exercise of the military ships, King Taejong pointed out the slow speeds of the Choson ships and ordered speedier ones built. Later, he supervised the first run of the newly built ships to make sure that they could catch up with the Japanese pirate boats.

The increased naval power of the Choson Dynasty, along with the strengthened coastal defense, made piracy more difficult for the waegu.

Japanese Boat People

With nowhere to raid, the Japanese increasingly opted for patriation in the Choson Kingdom, often crossing the sea aboard shabby boats. In 1397, ten Japanese ships surrendered to the Choson authority. In the same year, a Japanese monk named “Wonhae” applied for naturalization with his wife and children. According to the record in the Annals, Wonhae was given a surname, “Pyong,” and later appointed as a government official in the medical department, honoring his career as a doctor in Japan. At that time, the Choson government gave this particular surname to almost all the Japanese wanting to settle in Choson territory.

The number of the naturalized Japanese shot up because the Choson government adopted a carrot policy of accepting the Japanese to discourage the violent waegu, thereby keeping the coastal area in peace.

There is an episode which shows how badly the Japanese wanted to live in Choson. In 1426, the Choson government accepted 14 Tsushima islanders who applied for naturalization. What is intriguing is the fact that they wanted to sell liquor in Choson territory to make a living, which the Choson government allowed them to do later. Though selling liquor was by no means a respectable job, the Japanese had no other choice in order to survive.

The Choson government knew the reason why the Japanese were dying to get out of Tsushima. High-ranking official Huh Cho said, “Tsushima islanders are stealing and pillaging mostly because the island is rocky, thus unsuitable for farming. They are giving up their consciences because of hunger and starvation.”

The general perception toward the Japanese living in Tsushima island, was not be favorable. Official Yu Chong-hyon’s report to King Sejong in 1418, is especially revealing as to the Choson people’s idea of what the Japanese are like: “The Japanese on Tsushima island are so violent and wild that they don’t care about their own death. Also they take revenge over very small affairs, which makes it hard to predict what they will do to us.”

Also making the image of Japanese worse is a report dated 1429 by Park Suh-saeng, who visited Japan as a Tongsingsa (envoy to Japan): “Because there are many men, but little food in Japan, people often sell their servants for food. Meanwhile, some people kidnap other people’s children to sell them for food.”

The records related to the Japanese characteristics are numerous. Official Kim Ho-in traveled to Tsushima and reported to King Sejo in 1432: “The Japanese don’t know about leather shoes, wearing always wooden clogs. When they held a feast for me, the lord and his subordinate were sitting in the same position, and they had no class.”

Blind Loyalty, Reckless Suicide

In 1438, official Huh Cho pointed out the blind loyalty of the Japanese: “The Japanese emperor has never been challenged since time immemorial, and when the military chieftain is defeated and killed, all his subordinates commit suicide in a show of loyalty.”

More interesting information shedding light on Japan is preserved in the official report written by Yun Chi-wan, who visited Japan as Tongsingsa in 1687. Yun stated in his report that the highest-ranking official in Japan, who recently took office, was unpopular among the people and the poor harvest of the previous year, coupled with infectious disease put to death as many as 600,000 people.

In 1809, official Japanese interpreters reported on the general situation of Japan, including the popularity of the Choson paintings and writings. “The Japanese admire our nation, and Tsushima island is respected by other local lords for its proximity to Choson. When they get our writings and paintings, they preserve them with great care as if they are precious treasures,” states the Annals.

On the one hand, the Japanese seemed to admire the Choson Dynasty. On the other, they sent spies and went on pillaging sprees, despite the conciliatory gestures of the Choson government. A spy incident in 1417 is a case in point. A Japanese named “Sul-na” was arrested by the Choson soldiers. Charged with the spying, Sul-na confessed that he was in charge of getting the information about the wealthy people in the seaside villages, which would be used for future pillaging.

A more serious problem than spying was the massive inflow of the Japanese from Tsushima, who crossed the sea to settle in Choson, risking their lives. Government officials were summoned by King Sejong to deal with the issue in 1434.

Carrot, or Stick?

An official named Chung Cho called for generosity: “The Japanese in Tsushima depend greatly upon us for their daily lives. It doesn’t matter at all if we accept a couple of the Japanese wanting to settle here.”

In contrast, official Choe Yun-duk thought the other way around: “The Japanese are like wolves. Even though our government shows generosity and takes care of them, they definitely will not work for us as our people do and instead will engage in spying activities.”

Choe continued to say, “They are coming to us not because they sincerely desire to be our subjects, but because they want some food since their island suffered a poor harvest recently.”

Indeed the Japanese wanted food, and more of and more of it. Worse, they became bolder in begging for it. In 1558, the lord of Tsushima requested military provisions six times larger than the usual request in the name of keeping the waegu from invading Choson.

A government report then reveals how the Choson officials reacted to the preposterous demand: “Tsushima islanders openly call themselves Choson people. Yet they have requested six years of military provisions for one installment this time. On the surface, they seem to be loyal; beneath it, their real purpose is suspicious. It seems like they are capitalizing on every opportunity, to our disadvantage.”

Despite the unwillingness on the part of Choson government, the Japanese requested more food and other materials such as Buddhist scripts, bells, and all sorts of books in return for the hostages they had kidnapped from the coastal areas.

In 1439 alone, more than 10,000 Japanese went to Choson territory in order to get food and other precious materials, using fake identification documents.

The government knew that many of the Japanese forged the documents, but gave them enough food in a show of generosity, which resulted in a huge hole in Choson’s budget, amounting to more than 100,000 soks (1 sok equals 5.12 bushels).

Later, the Japanese expanded the list of items they need from the Choson Dynasty. They demanded coins, lumber for shipbuilding and even nails and planes.

Beggars CAN Be Choosers

The unabashed Japanese even dumped the gifts they thought too small. In 1503, the Tsushima Japanese asked for 1,000 silver coins, which were unavailable in Choson. So, the Choson government gave the Japanese 100 rolls of cotton clothing, which they dumped at the port in protest.

The hopelessly treacherous Japanese in Tsushima island were, in fact, duly punished in the earlier period. In 1419, Japanese marauders invaded the Chungchong province, killing 300 civilians, which infuriated King Taejong, who was in retirement after handing over the throne to King Sejong. To be noted is that King Taejong was the very person who attempted a military attack on the island for the first time in history.

King Taejong declared a war against Tsushima island in a formal announcement dated June 9, 1419: “Tsushima island was originally in the Choson territory. Considering the poor condition of the island, I granted the Japanese could live there, but the ungrateful people steal like dogs and rats, killing our people every year. Formerly, I embraced the waegu out of sympathy, relieving their hunger and even allowing trade, but they invaded us again and killed our innocent people.”

King Taejong’s anger against the Japanese translated into 17,000 Choson soldiers on board 227 military ships that headed for Tsushima island for battles. The war that ensued cost more than 3,800 lives on the both parties, and ended with the surrender of the Tsushima lord on Sept. 29.

The policymakers concerning with the scrapping of the fisheries agreement by Japan should consider the historical facts in the wake of the Tsushima conquest by Choson in 1419. Over the following centuries, Tsushima islanders never gave up the two-faced tactic of shamelessly begging for food and then downright pillaging whenever possible.

(10) Choson Suffered by Fair-Weather Neighbor

By Yang Sung-jin

Korea-Japan relations soured after Tokyo unilaterally scrapped the bilateral fisheries agreement in February, followed by Japan’s seizing of several Korean fishing boats in its self-imposed restricted waters.

The recent dispute left a bitter aftertaste, which is embarrassing, yet hardly surprising. After all, history tends to repeat itself.

No historical document illustrates the long-standing conflicts between the two neighboring countries better than the Annals of the Choson Dynasty.

Historical records about Japan in the Annals abound. According to the search results by the CD-ROM Annals, there are a total of 12,710 articles under the category of “Japan.”

On the very first page of the Annals, the historiographer mentions Japan. As expected, it is not a friendly passage; it is about a military expedition in a bid to defeat the “waegu” or the seaborne Japanese marauders prevalent in the mid-14th century.

“The Choson’s diplomatic principle toward Japan in the early stages was focused on blocking the waegu’s raids and, to that end, the Choson government often resorted to conciliatory measures such as allowing the Japanese marauders to trade with the Choson,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

In understanding the geopolitical situation of the day, the importance of the waegu cannot be emphasized too much. For instance, Yi Song-gye, the founder of the Choson Dynasty, was himself elevated into a national hero after defeating the Japanese pirates at the end of the Koryo Dynasty. Upon ascending the throne, Yi pushed ahead with diplomatic negotiations with Japan in order to tame the waegu.

In 1403, Choson and Japan exchanged formal diplomatic letters, opening a new chapter of bilateral relations. It is now known as “kyorin,” or diplomatic ties between Choson and Japan on an equal footing.

Equal But Not Always

“It’s true that the Choson king and the chief shogun in Japan were on equal terms but other local governors in Japan wanted to establish a diplomatic channel with Choson as a tributary state,” Lee said.

The Choson-Japan relations became multi-layered, not only because Japan’s political structure was decentralized, but also because Choson willingly allowed such a diversified diplomacy in a bid to resolve the waegu issue.

The mutual interest translated into a frequent exchange of diplomats and delegates. Choson dispatched formal delegates 65 times to the chief shogun.

“Most of the dispatches were done in the earlier period, reflecting a greater interest on the part of the Choson rulers at that time with regards to the waegu,” Lee said.

Japan, on the other hand, sent official delegates to Choson some 60 times. When it comes to individual contact, mostly from the less influential shoguns or local governors in Japan, the number goes upwards of 2,500, displaying how badly Japan wanted to trade with Choson.

Japan’s desperate position is understandable. The Japanese were in great need of necessities such as rice and cotton clothing, and Choson was the destination to get such items.

“An interesting fact is that most Japanese delegates wanted the Tripitaka Koreana when visiting Choson. At that time, new temples were sprouting up in Japan, and they wanted to own the sacred Tripitaka from Choson, a symbol of the highest authority for a temple or individual,” Lee said.

In the first half of the Choson period alone, Japan requested the Tripitaka Koreana 82 times. The Annals show that Choson distributed the sacred Buddhist writings along with other artifacts such as temple bells and Buddhist images on 46 occasions.

“There’s no question about the Choson’s immeasurable influence upon Japan’s Buddhism,” Lee said.

Also exported to Japan around the mid-15th century was cotton cloth. Choson’s exports of cotton cloth to Japan totaled hundreds of thousands rolls per year, suggesting its considerable impact on Japan where there was no cotton.

In exchange, the Japanese brought in rare minerals such as copper, tin and sulfur. Also imported to the Hermit Kingdom were luxury items such as medicines and spices.

Japan Exotica

Exchanges of officials, plus trade, resulted in greater exposure to each other’s culture and society. A Choson official named Park Suh-saeng traveled to Japan as a “Tongsinsa” (envoy to Japan) and reported what he witnessed there to King Sejong in 1429, which tells much about Choson society, as well.

One of the items that sparked Park’s interest in Japan was a water mill. “Japanese farmers are irrigating with a water mill, which operates automatically, using the natural currents of the water. Therefore, we have made a miniature model now, which can be used for our farmers in irrigation,” Park said.

Another exotic thing to the eyes of Choson people is a bathhouse in Japan. Park witnessed numerous private and public bathrooms, and thought it not only convenient but also very helpful for other purposes.

“In Japan, when a person boiling the water of the bathhouse blows a whistle, everybody pays money and takes a bath. We should establish bathhouses in public places in order to help our people to know how to use money,” Park said. Which means Choson had yet to establish a coinage system.

Yet, Park’s exciting experience was not without troubles. Above all, traveling to Japan across the East Sea was highly risky, to say the least. In addition to the turbulent conditions at sea, the Japanese marauders intent upon seizing the travelers were a constant threat.

“It took at least nine months for the Choson delegates to visit Japan and return safely. And the difficulties of the travel are not hard to imagine. But Choson kept sending those delegates in the hope of maintaining peaceful relations with Japan,” researcher Lee said.

But the peace was likely to fall apart mainly due to the intractable waegu and other Japanese preferring smuggling and pillaging to an official route.

In 1419, King Sejong sent Yi Chong-mu to attack Tsushima to wipe out the bases of the Japanese marauders. As a result, the waegu’s activities subsided, but not for long.

Unable to produce enough food on their mountainous rocky islands, the rulers of Tsushima repeatedly sent missions to Choson to express their regret. The Choson government, in response, granted the Japanese limited trading privileges.

In 1443, Choson reached an agreement with Tsushima, allowing them to do limited business here. The annual trading ships from Japan were regulated to under 50, and the traders had to show their credentials authorized by the lord of Tsushima.

According to the agreement, three ports — Chaepo (Changwon), Pusanpo (Pusan) and Yompo (Ulsan) — were opened to the Japanese traders along the Choson’s southeastern coast. And a restricted zone named “waegwan” (trading and living quarters for the Japanese in Choson) were established in order to control the Japanese visiting Choson.

Yet, the Japanese were not satisfied with the official trade; many of them resorted to smuggling. In 1438, the Uijongbu (State Council) reported to the king: “The Japanese are cheating the documents to get more food, which should be resolved immediately. Also, more strict checks on the visitors are needed to prevent them from cheating.”

On the part of the Japanese, trading with Choson meant a handsome profit. Therefore, they wanted to get into Choson desperately, resulting in a sharp increase of trade and more trade vessels, which violated the agreed treaty of 1443. At one point, more than 3,400 Japanese were staying in the waegwan in Chaepo alone.

Ungrateful Troublemakers

However, more Japanese led to more troubles. In 1510, the Pusan governor punished a Japanese criminal in order to tame the increasingly violent and unruly Japanese in the waegwan. But it triggered the Japanese’s anger in three ports. With the supporting soldiers from Tsushima, the Japanese rose in arms against the Choson commander. The disturbance was put down immediately, while the privileges at the three ports were abolished and trade relations were severed.

But the lord of Tsushima begged for a resumption of trade with Choson, which resulted in another treaty in 1512. The agreement stipulated that the number of ships allowed to trade was cut in half and the Japanese in the three ports were expelled.

The trade, resumed by the request from Japan, broke apart when 20 Japanese vessels intruded into the Choson territory without permission in 1544.

Again, the Japanese entreated for the resumption of trade, which Choson accepted on the condition that stricter regulations would be placed upon them.

Then again, in 1555, the Japanese marauders invaded a port in Cholla-namdo and killed the people and pillaged the villages, resulting in another souring of relations between Choson and Japan.

After the disturbance, Japan did not send a diplomatic mission to Choson for some 30 years, a blessing for Choson, eager not to be bothered by Japan.

However, it was a curse in disguise. The Japanese were building up their political and military power during this time and invaded Choson in 1592, which is now called the “Hideyoshi Invasion.”

Even after the devastating war, Japan repeatedly requested for trade with Choson. Trade eventually resumed again, along with the establishment of waegwan, which turned into a trouble spot saddled with crime.

On the fair-weather nature of the Japanese, Tongsinsa Park Suh-saeng commented in his report to King Sejong, which reminds us of today’s fisheries agreement unilaterally scrapped by Japan: “In general, the Japanese are ignorant of decorum and politeness. They are quick to send delegates when they want something from us, yet slow to honor our affairs when they are in need of nothing.”