Admiral Yi Sun-sin is a historical fgure who’s had a major impact on Koreans. Not only because Admiral Yi never lost a battle during the Imjin War, but also because of his fearless sense of loyalty, compassion and modest character.
Yi Sun-sin is generally accompanied by the phrase “seongung” which means “great hero”. This expression suits the Admiral well, as he protected Korea during the Imjin War (1592-1598). Undisputedly one of the most important figures in Korean history, vestiges of Yi’s heroic deeds are easily found in many places throughout Korean culture. His portrait is featured on the Korean 100 won coin; his statue stands in Seoul’s downtown Gwanghwamun Square; a Korean Navy destroyer was named after him; and his name adorns artistic facilities and streets.
There are many local festivals in honor of the Admiral, one is the Gunhangje Festival, or Naval Port Festival, usually held in Jinhae-gu, Changwon around the end of March or beginning of April. The festival was first held in 1952, when Korea’s first statue of Admiral Yi was erected. Also known as the Cherry Blossom Festival, it attracts more than 2 million tourists annually, and flowers are offered in honor of Korea’s modern-day culture. He appears in many TV shows, movies, documentaries, novels and even in online games.
Yi Sun-sin was born in 1545. At 27, he took a test to become a military officer, only to fail after falling off a horse. Four years later, Yi began his military career as a junior officer on the northern frontier. When Yi was assigned to be the commander of the Left Jeolla-do Province Naval District (present Yeosu), he prepared for Japan’s probable invasion by increasing the fighting power of the Korean Navy, making weapons and improving military strongholds.
Historical records depict the turle ship, or geobukseon, as follows: The head of a dragon was placed at the top of the ship near the bow, with the capability to fire cannon balls from the mouth. Metal spikes were used to cover the top of the ship to deter boarding tactics used by the Japanese. Although the interior was blocked from external view, one could see through to the outside from the inside of the ship. It was designed to fire artillery shells after charging enemy warships. In addition to creating the ship, Yi developed a new gun that combined the technology of Japanese rifles and Joseon-era guns.
The Imjin War broke out in May 1592, and totally 200,000 Japanese troops invaded Korea. Although the Japanese troops overtook Seoul, Yi destroyed about 40 Japanese battleships at Okpo, Happo and Jeonjinpo, and won battles off the coast of Sacheon, Dangpo, Danghangpo and Yulpo. In August, he turned the tide of the war by making a surprise attack on the Japanese fleet near Hansando Island. In 1593, Yi was appointed Naval Commander of the Three Province (Gyeongsang-do Province, Jeolla-do Province and Chungcheong-do Province) leading the combined navies of the three Southern provinces. He trained soldiers, expanded armaments, took care of refugees and promoted economic industries. When the Japanese troops reinvaded Korea, Yi secured victory by defeating 133 Japanese warships with only 13 Korean ships in the Battle of Myeongnyang.
Yi’s exemplary and humane behavior stood out during times of war, when military commanders had to secure the livelihood and resources for military administration on their own. He implemented various plans including fishing, production and sale of salt, managing garrison farms and issuing permits to ships. His love for his country led to his love for the people. Yi paid a lot of attention to the people’s ssafety, especially during times of war, ensuring that they were able to make a living by farming and fishing. Yi’s compassion should also be noted, as he always let one or two enemy battleships escape, worried of enemy retaliation.
A person of high character, never compromised with injustice, he pointed out mistakes his superiors or men in power made, often putting himself at a disadvantage. Yi was even stricter in regard to his personal expectations. He once asked for punishment for losing a warship during his return from the Battle of Ungcheonpo.
Yi also asked the government to award prizes to his soldiers who were killed or injured in battle. He offered opportunities to render distinguished service to officers under his command, and evaluated their performances objectively for fair compensation. In addition, he hired engineers from scorned areas and highly evaluated their achievements.
Such anecdotes are recorded in his Nanjungilgi War diary, which documented a period of seven years from the beginning of the Imjin War to the Battle of Noryang. The wartime diary details Yi’s personal agonies and military tactics, and enables readers to understand the sheer depth of his character.
The diary is highly regarded from a literary standpoint as it contains moving quotes and Chinese poems. “We can live if we are unafraid of dying in battles. But we will die if we are afraid of dying in battles.” This famous quote was recorded by Yi in a diary entry dated September 15, 1597. He had made this remark to encourage his soldiers before taking part in the Battle of Myeongnyang.
Yi was the greatest hero of the Joseon era. His diary also contains entries that express his love for his mother, and laments feeling like he failed her. Yi felt guilty for having to go to war even after hearing that his mother passed away.
In 1598, the combined fleets of Korea (Joseon Dynasty) and China (Ming Dynasty) fought a final battle by launching a sudden attack on retreating Japanese troops off the Noryang. During the fierce battle, Yi was shot and died on the dawn of December 16, 1598. He was 53 years old. “The battle is raging on. Don’t tell the soldiers if I die. You should not shock them,” Yi told his eldest son and nephew, worried that his death might upset his forces.
The Battle of Noryang was the last sea battle of the Imjin War and one of Korea’s greatest navy victory. A Ming commander praised Yi, naming him “Heaven’s Admiral” in his report to the Ming government. During the Imjin War, Yi fought a total of 23 battles against the Japanese invaders, never losing a single one. He distinguished himself by saving his country and his people. He was an intelligent military strategist, a brave leader and a man of noble character. Admiral Yi Sun-sin was, is and always will be an immortal hero among the Korean people.
Source: Korea People & Culture Magazine, April 2011