Yi Sun-shin

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The person I fear the most is Yi Sun-shin.
The person I hate the most is Yi Sun-shin.

The person I like the most is Yi Sun-shin.
The person I respect the most is Yi Sun-shin.
The person I most wish to kill is Yi Sun-shin.
The person I most to share a cup of tea with is Yi Sun-shin.

                     — A Contemporary Japanese Admiral

Since its origins in the 12th Century B.C., naval warfare has produced many heroes. Horatio Nelson spent his last moments annihilating Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar, securing a century of British maritime domination. Francis Drake masterminded the defeat of the vast Spanish Armada, saving his country from invasion. Togo Heihachiro brilliantly ambushed the newly arrived Russian Baltic fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, and swiftly sent it to the bottom of the Pacific. Yet in the pantheon of great admirals, one man stands above all others. Throughout his career, Yi Sun-shin demonstrated not merely tactical brilliance, but stoicism, endurance and superhuman strength of character, all of which enabled him to defend his homeland in life and place him above his peers in death.

Yi was born in 1545 to a family of yangban (nobles). After a purge of scholars, Yi’s disillusioned grandfather had begun something of a family tradition by withdrawing from government. Yi’s father had subsequently refused to become a civil minister, and, when he was growing up in Hanseong (the capital of the Joseon Dynasty), Yi himself dreamed of becoming a soldier. Accordingly, he opted to sit the mugwa (the state examination for military service) instead of the kwago (the exam permitting one to become a civil servant or scholar). Unfortunately for his ambitions, Yi failed the test, since he broke a leg by falling off his horse during the practical component of the exam. Displaying a fiery determination that would come to define his career, Yi hastily assembled a make-shift splint in order to complete the mounted archery section, impressing the judges – though they were still obliged to fail him. Four years later, however, Yi passed the mugwa and, in 1576, he became the oldest cadet of his cohort.

For the Joseon Dynasty that then ruled Korea, the preceding decades had been peaceful years. The only region that ever saw heavy fighting was the North, which was occasionally raided by Jurchen tribes dwelling in modern Manchuria. It was to this region that Yi, then one of the finest junior officers in the Korean army, was dispatched. Upon his arrival, he made an unfortunate discovery. The northern forts lacked any and all semblances of martial discipline; officers were corrupt, nepotistic and rarely alert to danger. Yi set about reorganising the structure of his fort, imposing order at last. Over the next decade, he used his newly drilled troops to win a series of successive victories, even capturing the Jurchen chief in 1583. 

In any rational state, Yi’s efforts would have been rewarded with praise, pay and promotion. Unfortunately for Yi, 16th Century Korea was corrupt to its core, and insecure superiors soon grew jealous of Yi’s accomplishments. They conspired to halt his advances and had him tried on trumped up charges of desertion. For the great crime of efficiently serving the state, Yi was imprisoned, tortured and stripped of his titles and responsibilities.

Yi was eventually released from captivity, at which point he rejoined the army. Despite his previous experience of command, however, he was forced to enlist merely as a common soldier. His diligence and talent once again ensured he rose up the ranks, and he was soon instructing cadets at the military academy. Thanks, again, to his envious superiors, Yi’s career underwent several lateral shifts, and he eventually ended up serving as the admiral of the southwest. Though he had no formal training or experience in naval warfare, the new admiral began mustering a new model navy, even designing a novel ship – the geobukseon (turtle ship).

While Joseon Korea was a relatively peaceful state, Japan was then concluding a period of immense civil strife, known as the Sengoku Jidai. After decades of civil war, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had finally unified Japan under his authority and now dreamed of carving out an empire stretching as far west as India. Before he could become master of Asia, however, Hideyoshi had to conquer Korea, which would serve as a launching pad for an invasion of China. He began mobilising his forces. Hideyoshi’s men had been hardened by years of endless war, possessed modern gunpowder weapons and were led by determined generals.

In contrast, the Joseon military was woefully unprepared. Peace had dulled its senses, and most commanders were more concerned with enriching themselves than they were protecting their country. Indeed, Korea’s defences and military infrastructure were so pitifully underdeveloped that the state lacked even a list of soldiers available for the draft. Too poor a country to afford a large standing army, Korea was defended by a poorly trained, poorly motivated and poorly equipped military.

In 1592, the Japanese began their conquest. Such was the incompetence of the Korean commanders that the local authorities successfully deluded themselves into thinking that the invasion unfolding before their eyes was not occurring. Instead, they assumed the thousands of heavily armed samurai pouring out of the ships were an official trade or diplomatic mission. Only after three-hundred ships had completely disembarked did they realise Joseon was under attack. Had the Korean navy acted swiftly, they could have wreaked havoc on the Japanese armada, most of which consisted of unarmed transport vessels. Instead of destroying the enemy navy, however, the Joseon officials panicked, scuttled their own fleet and fled. They had lost a hundred ships, but had not inflicted a single loss on the invading force.

This was the situation which Yi was hurriedly brought in to rectify. Most would have despaired, but, under the cover of night, Yi advanced with fewer than fifty ships to block the rest of the Japanese navy from reaching the Korean Peninsula. A contingent of Japanese ships had landed at Okpo, and its sailors had gone ashore to menace the local populace. Yi fell upon this fleet. He destroyed it, with just a single Joseon soldier being wounded in the encounter at Okpo. Emboldened, Yi began a series of raids, sweeping his enemies before him in a sequence of medium-scale battles.

It was in these engagements that the geobukseon demonstrated its value. The turtle ship, as its name indicates, was a defensive ship, designed for vessel-to-vessel combat. It was one of the first iron-clad warships; its roof was reinforced with metal plates and spikes covered its upper deck, preventing hostile hoardings. In addition to the twenty-six cannons mounted on its sides, the ship possessed a dragon’s head at its prow, through which cannons, flamethrowers and sulphur gas could be fired. In an age of wooden ships, the turtle ship was essentially a floating tank, and could rip through the lightweight Japanese carrier ships with ease.

As Yi notched up success after success, Hideyoshi grew increasingly frustrated. He sent his entire fleet to tie down Yi, but, at the Battle of Hansan-do, a Japanese detachment was routed by a far smaller Korean fleet. For his unbroken string of victories, Yi was first given command of three provinces’ navies, before eventually becoming supreme naval commander of Joseon. In his new role, Yi developed a self sufficient navy by recruiting refugees fleeing from the Japanese advance, and used the lulls in the campaign to recuperate and replenish his forces. Yet Yi’s compatriots were not so successful. The generals that had hounded and humiliated him lost battle after battle; fortifications were abandoned, soldiers deserted en mass and the royal family fled north. Every victory at sea was accompanied by countless disasters on land, and the Japanese could conquer half the country at their leisure.  

Indeed, the only obstacle to Hideyoshi was Yi. Realising they were unlikely to defeat him fairly through force of arms, the Japanese resorted to deceptionnand dispatched a double agent to feed the Korean court false information. Eventually, this spy reported a major piece of intelligence – the exact location of the Japanese fleet at a particular time. The Joseon court demanded Yi ambush the unsuspecting Japanese, but Yi, noticing many nooks and crannies which could be used to conceal vessels, immediately sensed a trap.

Unfortunately, his superiors were less than impressed; many either believed the Japanese ruse or saw this as an opportunity to unseat the man who had so upstaged them. Yi’s political enemies recalled him to Hanseong, tried him for treason and insubordination and once again stripped him of all his titles. He was fortunate to escape so lightly; the Joseon king, Seonjo, had convinced himself Yi was plotting to depose him and, in a fit of paranoia, tried to sentence his finest admiral to death. 

Yi’s political opponents were now in the ascendancy, but they had built their house on sand. The Japanese once again fed the Koreans false information, waiting for someone to take the bait. Yi’s replacement, Won Gyun, was promptly ordered to take the entire Joseon fleet – which Yi had nurtured from a mere fifty ships to a healthy one hundred and fifty – to ambush what was supposed to be an unarmed transport convoy. On their arrival, however, the Koreans were immediately encircled by a fully armed Japanese fleet a thousand vessels strong. Predictably, the Battle of Chilchonryang was a massacre. Only a dozen Joseon ships ships escaped, and Won Gyun was not aboard any of them. 

Having somehow made the situation even worse than it was at the start of the war, Joseon called, for a final time, on Yi Sun-shin. The Korean court wanted to disband its navy, but Yi wrote to the capital that “I still have twelve warships under my command. As long as I am alive, the enemy shall not be safe in the sea.” And so, more out of desperation than with the hope he might actually achieve anything, the Korean headquarters allowed Yi to resume command of a mighty fleet a dozen vessels strong. He quickly lost two ships, but acquired another three, bringing his total to thirteen. In this hopeless situation, Yi planned his final campaign. 

The site he settled upon for his dramatic showdown was the Myeongnyang Strait, a narrow, foggy and rocky pass with an unpredictable current. Yi lured a massive Japanese armada of three hundred and thirty-three ships into the Strait, then charged his flagship straight into the fray. At first, the shellshocked survivors of the previous campaigns deserted him, but, once his subordinates saw the damage he was inflicting on the Japanese, they joined the battle. The Japanese, despite outnumbering the Koreans by thirty ships to one, had been surrounded. They tried to flee, but found their escape route was blocked by chains which Yi had laid over the rocks before the battle. Yi did not lose a single ship, but sank thirty-three Japanese ships and captured the rest. 

Demoralised by this defeat, the Japanese threw in the towel. Resupplying their invasion forces was impossible as long as Yi prowled the waters between Korea and Japan, and the recent death of Hideyoshi meant the loss of the only man who had ever truly wanted the war. In a final attempt to break through the Joseon blockade, a Japanese fleet of five hundred ships faced Yi’s fleet, which by now had been reinforced with ships from Ming China, at the Noryang Strait. Here, as usual, Yi prevailed, but in the chaos of battle, a stray arquebus bullet lodged itself in his chest. It was a lethal blow. Even in his dying moments, the admiral displayed characteristic resolve; aware that his death might demoralise his troops, Yi ordered his son and nephew to carry his body below deck, and instructed them to keep beating the war drums. The Joseon won both the battle and the war, but at a great cost.

In death, Yi Sun-shin received the recognition he was never awarded in life. Koreans posthumously gave him the title Chungmugong (martial lord of loyalty), deservedly honouring him as one of the greatest generals of their nation. Indeed, Yi could easily be crowned the finest admiral in world history. Despite being permanently underfunded and outnumbered, Yi fought twenty-three battles without suffering a single defeat. While Yi’s opponents may not have been of the same calibre as those faced by Nelson and Togo, both of those brilliant admirals possessed myriad advantages that Yi could only have dreamed of having. They were provided with state of the art fleets, maintained by the ample coffers of their mother countries. In contrast, Yi was forced to build his own navy from scratch. While their careers were occasionally stymied, no other admiral was ever forced to enlist as a foot soldier, something Yi had to do on numerous occasions. Finally, there can be no suggestion that Yi’s victories were acquired through superior technology or through luck. Yi’s greatest victory, the Battle of Myeongnyang, was not won by either of these advantages (all Korea’s turtleships had been carelessly lost at Chilchonryang), but by hours of immaculate planning. Indeed, Togo himself paid homage to Yi’s brilliance, recognising that “it may be proper to compare me to Nelson, but not to Yi Sun-shin. He is too great to be compared to anyone.”

Ilgi, N., 1977. War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. University of Yonsei Press

Kwang-su, Y., 2017. Admiral Yi Sun-Sin: The Legendary Turtle Ship War Hero. New Ampersand