Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Y IS FOR YI SUN-SHIN
Yi Sun-Shin (or Sun-Sin) was a Korean admiral who is remembered as a national hero for turning back a relentless eight-year invasion by Japan.
Yi was born into a noble family in Seoul but was raised in Asan, near his mother's family. He passed the government examinations to become a military officer in 1576 (after failing them on his first try because he fell off his horse and broke his leg). Yi first made his mark as a strategist on land, defending border territories from Jurchen marauders from Manchuria, China. In 1583, he lured the Jurchen into battle and captured their chief. Soon after that, he became a naval officer. Although at the time he had no naval experience at all, he proved adept and soon rose through the ranks.
The Korean government and military were rife with corruption and backstabbing. Other officers were jealous of Yi's rapid rise, and spread false accusations about him which led to his discharge from officer rank. He was imprisoned and tortured, and when he was released he was demoted to a common soldier. Soon, though, he was assigned to run a military training center in northern Korea, which he did very well.
Within the span of a few months in 1590, Yi received four different promotions, culminating in his appointment as commander of the naval forces in Left Cholla Province. While in that post, he resurrected and developed the famous kobukson, "Turtle Ship," considered the first ironclad battleship in history. Cannons and guns could be fired from every side of these ships, and the dragon's heads on the bows could not only fire cannon, but also discharge smoke screens to conceal the ship's position from enemies. The decks were covered with armored plates which were studded with spikes and knives to prevent boarding by hostile forces (the Japanese ships were taller than the Korean ones, and leaping onto the decks of the vessels they wanted to capture was a Japanese m.o.).
In 1592 Japan invaded Korea as a first step in its plan to conquer China. Because Yi was one of the very few who had foreseen that the invasion was inevitable, he and his troops were well-supplied and well-prepared, despite the lack of cooperation he received from the government. Japan increased the size of its fleet to 1,700 ships, hoping to defeat the Korean navy through sheer numbers. But the Korean ships were structurally stronger than the Japanese ones, and Yi proved to be an exceptionally able strategist and leader. His forces defeated the Japanese invaders again and again, although they were greatly outnumbered. They fought four major operations against the Japanese during 1592, consisting of at least 15 battles, and Yi's forces decisively won every battle. While the Japanese invading land forces were very successful against Korea, their navies kept suffering humiliating defeats. In 1593, Yi was appointed the joint naval commander of the three southern provinces.
In 1597, a Japanese double agent convinced the useless Korean king that the Japanese were about to launch a massive attack and insisted that Yi and his forces be sent to set an ambush. Knowing how treacherous the area was for ships, and probably smelling a rat, Yi refused the king's orders. As a result, Yi was once again arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Upon his release, he was demoted to the rank of a common soldier. But his replacement as commander was disastrously inept, and under his watch the Japanese virtually destroyed the entire Korean fleet. Yi was quickly reinstated in his old post, but the Japanese wasted no time in attacking his greatly reduced navy, trying to finish it off for good this time. Miraculously, helped in part by a shift in the tides, Yi's 13 remaining ships defeated the Japanese force of 333 ships at the Battle of Myeongnyang, while suffering almost no casualties and losing none of their own tiny fleet. This resounding naval victory is credited with turning the course of the war against Japan and eventually leading to that country's retreat after eight years of continuous war. Unfortunately, Yi was not alive to see the final victory.
In December 1598, during the Battle of Noryang, Yi's forces once again defeated the Japanese and were pursuing them as they fled, but Yi himself was struck by a stray bullet. Aware of his imminent death, he famously said to his son and nephew, "The war is at its height. Wear my armor and beat my war drums. Do not announce my death." They obeyed his commands and kept the troops fighting until victory was achieved. Thus, even after his death, Yi and his forces remained undefeated in every battle they fought with the Japanese.
Yi's noble deeds in protecting his country have been commemorated with statues scattered throughout Korea.