[Visual History of Korea] Do or die naval battles set Adm. Yi Sun-sin as Hero

[Visual History of Korea] Do or die naval battles set Adm.  Yi Sun-sin as Hero

A statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin guards the Jindo Bridge connecting Jindo Island to the mainland in South Jeolla Province. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

War is always a man-made calamity. The Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), known as the Imjin War, which began the Year of the Dragon in 1592 were no different.

While Joseon-era Korea had superior battleships, muzzle-loading cannons, and large weapons capable of rapidly firing multiple rounds of explosives, which Japan lacked, the standing army was ready for battle at the time. of the Japanese invasion was only about 2,000 men.

The inventor and engineer of the Goryeo Kingdom, Choi Mu-sun (1325-1395), had developed large muzzle-loading cannons that were used successfully against Japanese pirates who raided Korean coastal communities.

Goryeo war hero Yi Seong-gye, who founded the Kingdom of Joseon in 1392, rose to prominence for suppressing Japanese pirate invasions on Korea’s southern coast in 1380.

The frequent attacks by Japanese pirates from 1350 to 1389 were partly due to the lack of centralized governance in Japan during an ongoing civil conflict for about 60 years called Nanbokucho, or “the period of the southern and northern courts”, from 1336 to 1392, when two lines of imperial thrones battled for legitimacy.

By the time King Seonjo (1552-1608) ascended the throne, a considerable percentage of the population was enslaved in the households of the ruling elites, and therefore unavailable for military service.

In 1592, the Kingdom of Joseon had approximately 2,000 active soldiers available for each of the four three-month periods of the year, totaling approximately 8,000 soldiers throughout the year. Slaves and elites were exempt from compulsory military service, placing an undue burden on farmers forced to take time off from their livelihoods to serve in the military.

Chungmusa Temple in Gogeum-myeon, Wando County, South Jeolla Province, is a memorial shrine dedicated to Adm.  Yi Sun-sin.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Chungmusa Temple in Gogeum-myeon, Wando County, South Jeolla Province, is a memorial shrine dedicated to Adm. Yi Sun-sin. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The lack of men available for military service led some of the ruling elites to propose disbanding the expensive navy early in King Seonjo’s reign, which began in 1567.

The invading Japanese army was the product of a century-long civil war in Japan called the “era of the Warring States”, an almost constant civil war beginning in 1467.

By the time Japan invaded Korea in May 1592, the Japanese army was probably the highest caliber of military fighters in East Asia.

As expected, Japanese soldiers reached Seoul within 20 days of landing in Busan on May 23.

The Joseon government’s approach to waging war involved gathering men capable of building up a fighting force in the event of an invasion. The untrained farmers mustered as a temporary army stood no chance against the 160,000 strong Japanese army.

In the waters off Korea’s southern coast, however, the Korean Navy had Yi Sun-sin.

Adm. The battle-hardened Yi (1545-1598), who had successfully defended the country against invaders in the northern territories in 1587 and 1588, had just been assigned to command the navy of Joseon on the southwest coast in 1591 at the age of 46.

Yi was credited with claiming Noktundo Island in the Tumen River Delta on the border between present-day Primorsky Krai, Russia and Korea from the Jurchen invaders. Noktundo was handed over to Russia by the Qing dynasty in 1860 without Korea’s participation in the deal.

One of the first things Yi ordered when he arrived on the south coast was the renovation and improvement of the 35-meter-long Geobukseon, or the “turtle ship”, and the construction of a fast and robust battleship. : the 140.3 metric tons. Panokseon, which was 32.16 meters long and could carry up to 140 people.

Chungmusa Temple in Gogeum-myeon, Wando County, South Jeolla Province, is a memorial shrine dedicated to Adm.  Yi Sun-sin.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The contemporary painting titled “Jangyanggongjeongtosijeonbuhodo” depicts the punished Jurchen invaders. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, then a junior officer, is listed as being present at the scene. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

The Turtle Ship was equipped with powerful cannons and was designed to approach enemy ships and destroy them with cannon fire. The Turtle Ship was completely covered with metal plates and sharp metal nails that prevented enemy sailors from boarding.

In his direct statement to King Seonjo on June 14, 1592, Yi wrote, “Your humble servant has made a special turtle ship for possible invasion by Japanese enemies. A dragon’s head was placed in front of him, and cannons were fired from the muzzle, and iron nails were installed on his back. We can see from the inside, but people cannot see the inside from the outside. We can charge hundreds of enemy ships and shoot them with our cannons.

The battleship Panokseon was a product of Korea’s long tradition of maritime dominance in East Asia, with 20 muzzle-loading guns on board.

The muzzle-loading cannon technology of the Goryeo Kingdom period (918-1392) saw significant upgrading and improvement during the reign of King Sejong the Great (1397-1450).

Up to 20 cheonjachongtong, a 1.3 meter long cannon with a 130 mm barrel capable of firing a 30 kilogram daejanggunjeon projectile, a large rocket-shaped arrow with an iron head and fins, at a distance of about 1,400 meters, were deployed on each of the Panokseon battleships.

Cheonjachongtong guns were also mounted on the Turtle Ship and were credited with sinking many Japanese warships. Additionally, the Turtle Ship’s dragon head was equipped with hyeonjachongtong, cannons capable of firing 30 metal balls measuring 30mm in diameter at a time.

In the Battle of Myeongnyang on October 25, 1597, Yi, using only 13 Panokseon battleships, fought against the Japanese Navy near Jindo Island in the southwest of the Korean Peninsula, decimating some 330 Japanese warships.

In fact, of the 23 naval battles during the war against the Japanese, Yi lost none, a record unmatched in the history of world naval warfare.

In the Battle of Myeongnyang on October 25, 1597, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, using only 13 Panokseon battleships, fought against the Japanese Navy near Jindo Island in southwestern waters off Korea, decimating some 330 Japanese warships.  Photo © Hyungwon Kang

In the Battle of Myeongnyang on October 25, 1597, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, using only 13 Panokseon battleships, fought against the Japanese Navy near Jindo Island in southwestern waters off Korea, decimating some 330 Japanese warships. Photo © Hyungwon Kang

Several jijachongtong, guns about a meter long with a 100 mm gun firing 16.5 kg janggunjeon projectiles, were also placed on the Joseon battleships.

While the Japanese ships were more numerous, they were not as strong in combat. Japanese warships were not as sturdily built as Korean warships and only deployed a maximum of four guns, as the Japanese preferred to engage in combat after jumping aboard enemy ships.

While Yi was a decorated soldier and naval fleet commander, he fought against many enemies within the Joseon court.

Politicians who were jealous of Yi’s accomplishments falsely accused him of various charges, which led to multiple imprisonments as well as torture.

Yi documented the paralyzing pains from injuries he suffered after serving his prison term in his “Nanjung Ilgi”, or “Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s War Diary”, which was entered in the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World.

Despite all the odds, Yi became the most decorated naval commander in history. He protected South Jeolla Province, Korea’s rice bowl, from Japanese invaders and cut off war supplies for the Japanese army, which had overtaken Pyongyang and wreaked havoc in the northern part of Korea. as well as in the rest of the country during the war. Seven Year Imjin War.

By Hyungwon Kang ([email protected])

Korean American photojournalist and columnist Hyungwon Kang is currently documenting Korean history and culture in pictures and words for future generations. — Ed.

By Korea Herald ([email protected])

Briana R. Cross