(14) Facts and Faulty Myth About Kobukson

By Yang Sung-jin

Last week, numerous events and ceremonies were held across the nation to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598), one of Korea’s most respected military heroes. Yi was born on April 28th.

Admiral Yi is widely admired by the Korean people because he defeated the Japanese forces in the 1592-98 Hideyoshi Invasion. Furthermore, most Koreans are proud of the historical fact that Admiral Yi invented the iron-clad fighting battleship named “kobukson” (turtle ship in Korean), which greatly helped beat off the Japanese naval forces during the war.

But there is a faulty myth behind the worship of Admiral Yi, even though he certainly deserves respect. In particular, the kobukson is at the center of myth-making by historians.

When asked on how many kobuksons might have existed around the Hideyoshi Invasion, ordinary Koreans are likely to put the figure around dozens or more.

But, only three kobuksons were assembled and employed for the actual sea battles against the Japanese. Even this figure is not entirely rock-solid.

Some historians argue the Choson naval force had at least five kobuksons at that time.

Another fact to remember is that the kobukson, or at least its prototype can be found in documents far earlier than the Japanese invasion of the late 16th century.

In the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty, the first ever reference to the word “kobukson” is found in an article dated Feb. 5, 1413.

King Taejong, then passing by Imjin Island, was reported to have watched a mock battle between a kobukson and an imitation of a Japanese battleship.

Also, in 1415, official Tak Shin reported to the king that the turtle ship should be developed further because it is almost indestructible from collision with enemy’s ships.

Some scholars go so far as to put the origin of the kobukon around the late period of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), as part of a bid to counterattack the Japanese seaborne marauders who pillaged the seashore villages of the Korean peninsula.

Most troubling is the lack of credible historical documents, which has long intensified disputes over the origin and actual look of the kobukson, providing little academic foundation to authentically restore the iron-clad battleship.

The most authoritative record about the kobukson to date is an article of the Choson Annals dated on May 1, 1592. The document reveals that Admiral Yi made the kobukson in the course of building up the military force.

According to the document, the kobukson was covered with thick wood blocks, with the cross-shaped narrow paths grooved on top. In the space between the paths stood sharp swords and pikes. These life-threatening weapons were camouflaged with a sheet or grass so that the enemy could mistakenly jump on the cover to death.

The ship also bore the head of the dragon, the legendary creature of Asian culture, through which a cannon fired. Moreover, six cannons were installed on each side of the ship, while the soldiers could hide behind the sturdy shield with utmost safety. The tail of the ship was equipped with a firearm, as well.

The speed of the kobukson seemed fairly quicker than other ships. The same document states, “The kobukson dashed into battle at will, destroying enemy ships as if the wind tossed them upside down.”

Historical Prediction

Admiral Yi started developing a new type of kobukson as soon as he was appointed as left naval station commander of the Cholla province in 1951, just one year before the devastating war broke out.

According to the diary written in 1952 by Admiral Yi himself, he received hemp clothes for the kobuskon on Feb. 8 and tested the firearms on the new battleship on March 27.

Coincidence or not, Admiral Yi conducted the final test of other cannons using the kobuskon on April 12, completing the kobukson project. And the very next day, the 200,000 strong Japanese army aboard 700 battleships across the sea moved in to attack the Choson Dynasty.

It was about two months after the breakout of the war that the kobukson went out to the sea near Tangpo to confront the Japanese naval force for the first time. In the sea battle directed by Admiral Yi, the kobukson proved its strategic power, spearheading the historical victory of the Choson naval force, while crushing some 30 Japanese battleships.

But why was the kobukson so effective in gaining the upper hand in the sea battle over the Japanese forces? First of all, the structure of the kobukson covered with the lethal pikes and swords on top prevented the Japanese army from moving too close, which led to the Choson’s victory in the end.

At the time, the Japanese army was superior at hand-to-hand fighting through numerous battles during the 100-year-long Japanese internal war known as the “Warring States Period.” Such tactics were also applied to the sea battle: the Japanese soldiers jumped on the deck of the enemy ships and began the deadly hand-to-hand fighting.

Furthermore, it was the highest honor to be designated as the first person allowed to jump on the enemy ship.

But when it came to the kobukson, the honorable jumping meant an immediate death.

Even scarier was the incredible speed of the kobukson hitting and scuttling the Japanese ships. The secret of the nimble movement lied in the flat bottom of the main body in contrast to more streamlined boats. As a result, the kobukson was able to gyrate freely.

More importantly, the firearms equipped on the kobukson were far more sophisticated and powerful that those of the Japanese naval force. With the Choson soldiers invisible behind the shield, the kobukson launched its deadly attack on the Japanese army, who were extremely scared, thinking that the fire-spouting kobukson was a sea monster.

Deadly Sea Monster

The strange appearance and destructive charging of the kobukson did much to deal a blow, both psychological and real, to the Japanese army. A Japanese soldier named Soto Oka dubbed the kobukson as a “blind boat,” suggesting its indiscriminate collision with the Japanese battleships.

Interestingly, once the Japanese naval forces came to know the kobukson better, they ran away as soon as spotting it, calculating there was no possibility in winning a battle. Unlike the widespread perception that the kobukson was utilized throughout the war, it was not used at all when the Japanese mounted another large-scale attack on the Choson in 1598. It seems the Choson naval forces also knew the kobukson lost its strategic edge against the escaping Japanese.

Another mistaken notion to be cleared up is that the kobukson was an iron-clad battleship, the first ever invention of its kind in world history. And while it still may be, historians admit the possibility that the kobukson’s cover shield could have been made of material other than iron.

There is a 17th century painting preserved in the Korea Naval Academy Museum, depicting the appearance of the iron-clad kobukson with a highly realistic touch. The painting, however, cannot be used as evidence for the existence of the iron-clad turtle ship because it greatly differs from the drawings of the kobukson in the 1795 compilation of Admiral Yi’s writings and related materials, which do not mention iron in explaining the kobukson.

Yet, there is a word meaning iron-clad armor related to the kobukson in an official letter written in 1748 by Yi Un-sup, then left naval force commander of Kyongsang province. The letter was designed to call for the construction of more kobuksons in order to replace conventional battleships.

“Although Admiral Yi’s kobukson draws keen interest from scholars, existing documents and materials are far short of public expectations. The problem is that scholars have been slow to conduct a scientific study of the kobukson, fearing it might undermine national pride and fantasy around the turtle ship,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.


(13) Korea Marks 400th Anniversary of Death of Adm. Yi Sun-shin

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.

Untrodden Path

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.”


(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.