Admiral Yi Sun-sin - A Korean Hero KoreanHero.net
Yi Sun-sin: Hero of Korea
About Yi Sun-sin
Historical Background
Major Naval Battles
The “Turtle Ship”
The War Diary
Life and Death
Conclusion
Appendix

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Appendix

The Admiralship of Yi Sun-sin

Following are some of the key features of Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s leadership, which lay behind every legendary naval victory that he won.

1. Thorough preparation and intensive training

Before the war and throughout it, and even during the truce, Admiral Yi always subjected his men to intensive training in archery, artillery, and the various standard naval maneuvers and formations. He also tirelessly engaged himself in manufacturing new weapons and building ships. For example, only a year after the Battle of Myongnyang which he fought with a mere thirteen ships, he had succeeded in building 70 more – an astonishing rate of one new ship every five days.

2. Careful study of the nature of the battlefield and its layout

The southern coast of Korea, the scene of many fierce sea battles between Korea and Japan during the Seven Year War, was a maritime labyrinth, consisting of countless isles and inlets. Furthermore, the current is very fast and the long stretching coast provided a completely different appearance with the rise and fall of every tide. Yi made a careful study of the hourly changes of currents and winds, as well as the natural features peculiar to each naval battlefield. Based on his investigations, he was able to rely on a safe sea-route whenever he moved his fleet by night escaping the eye of the enemy. As evident from the battles fought at Hansan and Myongnyang, his foreknowledge allowed him to turn the complex geographical features of the coast to his advantage when pursuing or being pursued by an enemy.

3. Diverse use of naval tactics

Admiral Yi used a wide variety of naval tactics in sea battles besides the famous Crane Wing Formation.[1] In his first battle at Okpo, he arranged his fleet in horizontal line and made straight for the enemy fleet at full speed, thus not allowing them the least room to maneuver or escape and pressing them close with fierce cannon fire. In the sea battle at Pusan, the Long Snake Formation (Kor. Chang Sa Jin) was used in order to deal with the formidable odds – 83 Korean ships against 480 Japanese. Yi adopted this long, narrow formation to minimize the exposure of his fleet to the enemy’s fire. Korea emerged victorious from this battle, sinking 128 enemy ships and losing none herself. In the Battle of Happo, Yi’s fleet droved the enemy fleet into a confined harbor, and was thus able to destroy all of its ships. In that engagement, Yi had no need to use formal naval formations, but simply ordered his ships to dash forward individually against the enemy as he judged fit. 

 

4. Undermining enemy morale and winning the trust of his men

 

  During naval engagements, Yi’s navy subjected the enemy to a bombardment of arrows and cannon shot from the outset, a tactic which proved highly effective in weakening the enemy’s fighting morale, and finally getting the better of them. As a consequence, Korean sailors developed an absolute trust in their admiral, and their morale grew higher and higher with every victory to which he led them.

5. Maintaining perfect discipline and strict principles

Lazy officers were rewarded with strokes of the cudgel, regardless of their rank. Soldiers who deserted the army were punished with death, as were officers who accepted bribes and overlooked their desertion, and indeed any man who was found to have committed the same crime more than once. At the Battle of Myongnyang, Yi angrily reproved An Wi, who had fallen back out of fear, threatening him with death under court martial if he did not heed his call to advance, and his words awakened An Wi to recover his spirit and fight. Admiral Yi’s emphasis on strict obedience to martial law and the maintenance of absolute discipline meant that the whole Korean Navy, from the supreme commander to the common soldier, were firmly united as one and were thus able to carry out naval formations and tactics which demanded strong unity among crew members successfully.

6. Fellowship and Duty

Although Chinese Admiral Chen Lien had attempted to hinder Yi’s plan to destroy the retreating Japanese force, the admiral rescued Chen when he was encircled by enemy ships at Noryang, and in danger of being captured. In the Battle of Myongnyang, An Wi abandoned his loyalty to his commander at the sight of the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, but was later saved by the admiral when he fell into trouble. Yi was always faithful to his principles and would not permit injustice or irresponsibility in his men. But at the same time, he harbored a deep sense of fellowship and obligation to them and so gained their trust, respect and devoted service.

7. Leadership overcame the worst conditions

Throughout the Seven Year War, Admiral Yi alone undertook to provide for every aspect of warfare, from supplies and provisions to recruitment and shipbuilding, having no support from the government. In battles where overwhelming odds were involved, he led his navy from the front to inspire his men with his valor and zeal. In the desperate situation before the Battle of Myongnyang, when the Korean Navy had only thirteen ships with which to fight, Yi was able to re-arm his men, with the dauntless soldier’s maxim “He who seeks death will live, and he who seeks life will die.”

Behind all these methods and devices lie Yi’s unshakable loyalty and selfless dedication to his country and people. In the course of abiding by them, Yi had to endure endless trials and sufferings. He remained loyal to his country, however, even after imprisonment, torture, and ignominious demotion to the ranks, since he firmly believed that remaining at sea and defeating the enemy was the one thing he could do for his nation. It is this splendid patriotic devotion that could be seen as the most powerful and important strategy of Admiral Yi Sun-sin.

 

Naval Battles of Admiral Yi Sun-sin

During the Seven Year War, Yi Sun-sin had engaged in twenty-three naval battles against Japan and emerged victorious in all of them. The naval battles fought by the Admiral can be summarized in a chart as follows.

 

Date
Month/Day/Year
Location Korean Ships Japanese Ships Outcome

1

5/7/1592

Okpo

27

26

26 enemy ships sunk

2

5/7/1592

Happo

27

5

5 enemy ships sunk

3

5/8/1592

Chokjinpo

27

13

11 enemy ships sunk

4

5/29/1592

Sachon

26

13

13 enemy ships sunk

5

6/2/1592

Tangpo

27

21

21 enemy ships sunk

6

6/5/1592

Tanghangpo

51

26

26 enemy ships sunk

7

6/7/1592

Yulpo

51

7

7 enemy ships sunk

8

7/8/1592

Hansan-do

56

73

47 enemy ships sunk

12 enemy ships captured

9

7/10/1592

Angolpo

56

42

42 enemy ships sunk

10

8/29/1592

Changrimpo

81

6

6 enemy ships sunk

11

9/1/1592

Hwajungumi

81

5

5 enemy ships sunk

12

9/1/1592

Tadaepo

81

8

8 enemy ships sunk

13

9/1/1592

Sopyongpo

81

9

9 enemy ships sunk

14

9/1/1592

Cholyong-do

81

2

2 enemy ships sunk

15

9/1/1592

Choryangmok

81

4

4 enemy ships sunk

16

9/1/1592

Pusanpo

81

470

128 enemy ships sunk

17

3/4/1594

Jinhae

30

10

10 enemy ships sunk

18

3/5/1594

Tanghangpo

124

50

21 enemy ships sunk

19

9/29/1594

Changmunpo

50

117

2 enemy ships sunk

20

9/16/1597

Myongnyang

13

330

31 enemy ships sunk

90 enemy ships severely damaged

21

7/18/1598

Choli-do

?

100

50 enemy ships sunk

22

9/20/1598

Chang-do

211 (Korea 83 + China 128)

?

30 enemy ships sunk

11 enemy ships captured

23

11/18/1598

Noryang

146 (Korea 83 + China 63)

500

450 enemy ships sunk

Won Kyun was instated as the Supreme Naval Commander in Yi’s place while he served as a common foot soldier, and led three sea battles which ended in the Korean Navy’s worst catastrophe.

 

 

Date

 

Location

Korean Ships

Japanese Ships

Outcome

1

07/07/1597

Cholyong-do

168

500

7 Korean ships

sunk & captured

2

07/09/1597

Kadok

161

1000

27 Korean ships

sunk & captured

3

07/16/1597

Chilchonnyang

134

1000

122 Korean ships

sunk & captured

All dates are based on lunar calendar, which was used in East Asia until the late nineteenth century.

 

In addition to the 23 sea battles, several minor engagements took place. These include an assault by the Korean Navy on the Japanese naval base, and its successful defense of its own camp from the Japanese.

 

 

Date
Month/Day/Year
Location Korean Ships Japanese Ships Outcome

1*

2/10/1593

~3/6/1593

Woongchon

89

40

Japan: 100 casualties

 

2

1594-10.-4.

Changmumpo

50

?

Japanese Retreat

3

8/28/1597

Eoranjin

12

8

Japanese Retreat

4

9/7/1597

Byukpajin

12

13

Japanese Retreat

5

11/13/1598

Chang-do

146

(Korea 83+

China 63)

10

Japanese Retreat

 

* The number of ships involved and the outcome of each naval engagement as shown in the charts have been taken from Admiral Yi’s War Diary and Memorials to Court, as well as from the Royal Archives of the Choson Dynasty, the official record of the government.

* Throughout the Seven Year War, the Korean Navy under Admiral Yi suffered some casualties but lost no ships; only two ships were lost by the mistake of captains on their way back to the base after the engagement at Woongchon. Such overwhelming victories by the Korean Navy may be attributed to the structural integrity of their ships, built in durable design and material, and the superior firepower and range of their naval artillery. The Japanese armed their vessels with only one to three cannons with much less firepower, and their main weaponry, muskets were effective in killing enemy sailors but not in destroying enemy ships. Yi thus utilized the strategy of sinking the enemy warship with concentrated cannon-fire before the distance between their ships had narrowed down to the musket range of 200m. In short, the Korean Navy could achieve successes unparalleled in the history of naval warfare due to Yi’s forceful strategy based on the superiority of Korean ships and guns.

* Of the twenty-three battles Yi had fought, the largest and the fiercest was the Battle of Noryang, the final engagement that put the 146 ships of Korea and China against the 500 of Japan carrying back their entire army on retreat home. The long, seven-year war, originating from the delusive ambition of a man in search for fame and territory, had taken away countless innocent lives and utterly destroyed their homeland. Boarding every supply and weapon he had onto warships, Yi headed for Noryang to carry out his final duty for his country and people. He took off his armor and helmet and fought at the heart of the battle, firing arrows and beating the war drums himself. He had never before taken off his armor or helmet in action. Perhaps it had been his resolve to end his difficult, arduous life with this last victory at sea. When he died by an enemy bullet, neither his crews nor the Chinese Navy knew of his death. They poured their hearts and souls into defeating the enemy till the very end and achieved the resounding victory that saw the sinking of 450 Japanese warships out of 500. It was the most honorable and precious victory for the Korean Navy earned in sacrifice of the admiral’s life.

With his last breath, he said, “Tell no one of my death.” He was concerned that his death might encumber the fighting against the enemy.

 

The Warships and Weaponry of Korea and Japan

During the Seven Year War, the Korean navy used both Panokson and Kobukson warships. The Panokson was the mainstay of the navy, while one to three Kobukson at would be used as the main assault ships. The ships of the Japanese navy consisted of the large Atake, the medium-sized Sekibune and the smaller Kobaya. The Atake served as the flagship, carrying on board the commanding admirals, while the medium-sized Sekibune comprised the greater part of the rest of the navy.

A key feature of the Korean Panokson was its multiple decks. The non-combatant personnel were positioned between the main-deck and the upper-deck, away from enemy fire. The combatant personnel were stationed on the upper-deck, which allowed them to attack the enemy from a higher vantage point. The Japanese fleet serviced mostly single-decked vessels, with the exception of a few large Atake.

In line with the traditional structure of Korean ships, the Panokson had a flat base. This feature was due to the nature of the Korean seacoast, which had a broad tidal range and flat, expansive tidelands. A level underside enabled a ship to sit comfortably on the tideland when the tide was out, after coming ashore or inside a wharf at high water. It also ensured greater mobility and a light draft and in particular allowed a ship to make sharp changes of direction at short notice. This Panokson was one of the main reasons why Admiral Yi was able to employ the Crane Wing formation at the Battle of Hansan with such success.

By contrast, the hulls of the Japanese vessels were V-shaped. A sharp underside was favorable for swift or long-distance travel because of lower water resistance. Since this variety of hull had a deep draft, however, the ship’s turning radius was considerable and changing direction was therefore a lengthy process.

Both Korean and Japanese ships used sails and oars. Of the two basic types of sail, square and lateen, the square gives a strong performance downwind but struggles windward, whereas the fore-and-aft lateen sail excels against the wind, though requiring a large crew to handle it. In the West, square sails were used in the galleys of Ancient Greece and the Viking longships, and the fore-and-aft variety later in the Mediterranean ships of the Late Middle Ages. When the Age of Exploration began in the fifteenth century, multiple-masted ships equipped with both types of sails eventually appeared. In Korea such ships had been in use since the eighth century. Korea’s Panokson and Kobukson therefore had two masts by default, and their position and angle could easily be managed so that the sails could be used in all winds, whether adverse or favorable[2]. The Atake of the Japanese Navy also had two masts, but the main parts of its vessels were square-rigged and their sails limited to use in favorable winds.

It is worthwhile also to compare the hulls of the two nations’ respective warships, and their relative strength. The Panokson used thick, high density boards, giving an overall sturdiness to the ship’s structure. Japanese warships were weaker, due to the thin, lower density timber used to build them[3]. The Sekibune in particular, being the standard warship of the Japanese fleet, was built to be as light as possible, increasing its speed at the expense of structural integrity.

The Panokson was not only built using thicker timbers, but its general structure was held together by means of wooden nails, matching indentations, and interlocking teeth. This meant that as its boards absorbed water and expanded, the greater integrity of the hull was made stronger. The Japanese warships, on the other hand, relied on metal nails which, as time passed and corrosion and rust set in, eventually weakened the hull.

This difference in structural integrity, which also determined the number of cannons that could be carried on board, suited Japan and Korea to different types of naval combat. Because the Japanese ships lacked the strength to withstand the recoil of cannon, even the largest ship Atake could carry only three at the most. Since the hulls of Korean warships were strong enough, however, they were able to carry a large number of long-range cannons. These could be installed with ease on the large upper-deck of the Panokson ships, and their angle configured at will to increase the range.

Since the Japanese warships only allowed for a very limited number of cannons, their sailors mainly used muskets, which had a range of 100-200m (330-660 ft). Korea, on the other hand, had on board several varieties of cannon, such as Heaven, Earth, Black and Yellow. They fired daejon (a long, thick arrow in the shape of a rocket) with a range of 500m (1,650 ft), as well as chulwhan (cannon shot) which could travel up to a distance of 1km (3300 ft). Wangu, a kind of mortar, which fired stones or shells with a radius of 20cm (7.8 in), was also used by the Korean navy.

Another noteworthy aspect of Korea’s heavy fire-arms is that they were not all invented to meet the sudden emergency of war. These weapons in fact made their appearance some 200 years prior to the Seven Year War. Thanks to the efforts of Choi Mu-son, a general and a chemist, Korea began manufacturing and developing gunpowder and power-based weapons. Korean cannons first saw action in 1380 against a large fleet of Japanese pirate ships, and were found to be a great success. In comparison, the first naval battle to have employed cannons in Europe was the Battle of Lepanto (1571), 200 years later.

In the 15th century, under the lead of King Sejong, who was himself a pioneer of scientific research, the performance of these heavy artillery improved dramatically. Having built a cannon range next to the Royal Court, and after much experimentation and study, King Sejong finally increased the extent of the cannons’ firepower from 300m (980 ft) to 1800m (60,000 ft). Naval canons were also developed at this time and among them, Heaven, Earth, Black and Yellow cannon were later employed by Yi Sun-sin. The development of artillery steadily continued after King Sejong, and saw the invention of the Bikeokjinchonlae, a time-bomb that flung out hundreds of metal shards upon explosion, and the Dapoki, a machine capable of firing many arrows at once.

   The main naval strategy employed by the Japanese was that of "grapple-and-board", whereby sailors would attempt to board an enemy ship and fall to sword fighting on the decks. The Japanese Navy's concept of sea battle was therefore one of a fight between crews rather than the vessels themselves. This was the most common naval strategy in the world during this time, and was as common among the Europeans of the day. The Korean Navy, however, utilizing superior warships and firepower to burn and sink the enemy vessels, thus engaged in a more modern type of naval warfare.

 

Comparison between Korean and Japanese Warships

 

Korean Warship

Japanese Warship

Hull

U-shaped with level base. Quick to change direction thanks to small turning radius V-shaped. Greater potential for speed, but large turning radius.

Crew

Panokson: 120-200
Kobukson: 150
Atake: 200-300
Sekibune: 100
Kobaya: 40

Speed

3 knots 3 knots minimum

Sail

Multiple-masts: sails could be used both windward and downwind Square-sail: limited to downwind use

Timber

Pine and Oak Japanese Cedar and Fir

Joints

Wooden nail: expands in water to strengthen overall structure Metal nail: corrodes in water weakening overall structure

Main Weapon

Heavy artillery: range 500m (1,650 ft)
Fire-arrows
Muskets: range 200m (660ft)
Spears, swords, arrows

Method of Attack

Breaching enemy hulls
Burning and sinking enemy ships
Grappling and Boarding
Killing and wounding enemy crews

 

 

Yi Sun-sin: His Memories and Influence on Korea Today

Even after 400 years, the noble spirit of Admiral Yi, which saved a country from the brink of collapse, remains as the object of veneration and admiration. The following are a selection of different ways in which the Admiral has been remembered by his countrymen since his valiant death at the Battle of Noryang.

1. King Son Jo, expressing his apologies and praying for the soul of Yi, gave the following funeral address.

      I abandoned you, and yet
      You did not once abandon me.
      The sufferings you underwent in this world,
      And those you take with you to the world after,
      How could one convey them in words?

Later, in 1604, the 37th year of Son Jo’s reign, Yi was honored posthumously as the Vice-Prime Minister. In 1643, the 27th year of King In Jo’s reign, he was awarded the posthumous title ‘Chung Mu Gong’ (Master of Loyal Valor). In 1793, the 17th year of King Jung Jo’s reign, he was honored posthumously as the Prime Minister.

Under the Royal Ordinance of King Jung Jo, an exhaustive compilation of the deeds and achievements of Yi’s lifetime was undertaken in 1793. Entitled A Complete Collection on Chung Mu Gong Yi, it was published in 14 volumes after three years of research. Assigned and protected as the cultural heritage, the collection is an important historical source which illuminates all of Yi’s legacies to Korea.

2. Numerous shrines and monuments dedicated to the admiral’s memory have been built, including the Hyonchungsa Shrine at Asan. All over the southern part of Korea, where vestiges of his footmarks remain – at the sites of his various battles, at Cholla Naval Station, at his training camps and so on – the public continue to visit and pay their respects.

   The world’s first ironclad warship, the Kobukson, was restored and reconstructed by the Korean Navy in 1980, and placed on exhibit in the Republic of Korea Naval Academy, the Asan Hyeonchungsa Shrine, the War Memorial and the Jinju National Museum.

   The scientific innovation behind Yi’s Kobukson is the spiritual foundation and driving force behind the shipbuilding industry in Korea today. Over 30% of the world’s ships are built in Korean shipyards, and its marine technology is regarded as the most sophisticated in the world. In terms of order volume, it continues to stay ahead of its nearest competitor Japan as it has done for many years.

3. Admiral Yi is one of the most respected figures in Korean history and there are no fewer than 200 books written on him, with 74 published in 2004 and 2005 alone. The biographical novel Song of the Sword, based on the story of the admiral’s life, became a bestseller and was even singled out as recommended reading by Korea’s President Roh Mu-hyun.

4. Since the beginning of the 21st century, many Koreans have become keen to learn the attitude and methods of Yi Sun-sin for their own development. His integrity, loyalty and devotion, his fine strategies, creative thinking, painstaking forward-planning and emphasis on the gathering of information through contacts all fulfill the criteria demanded of a leader in modern times. The field of economics and management is just one area in which the study and application of Yi’s strategies and leadership has taken root. Professor Ji Yong-hee, author of In Times of Economical Warfare: A Meeting with Yi Sun-sin, is currently giving lectures under the series title ‘Yi Sun-sin on Business Management’. Regarding Yi as a model for 21st century leadership, he argues there are many lessons we can learn from him, including being faithful to basics, establishing trust between individuals, striving for innovation, valuing information, and not falling victim to pride.

   “Yi, above all, was strict with his own self, and he stood by his principles till the very end, thereby earning the trust of those around him. Today this might be called ‘Transparent Management’. Since he founded himself on morality, his subordinates believed and trusted him absolutely. He was moreover very modest. And since modest, he was always prepared.” – Prof. Ji Yong-hee

 

5. Even in the sphere of culture, Yi has emerged as an iconic figure of 21st century Korea. The television show “The Immortal Yi Sun-sin” had its debut on September 4, 2004, went on to receive the record ratings of almost 30%, and was voted as one of the most popular broadcasts of the year. Its success in the East generated considerable interest in the United States, and a subtitled version was soon released for American audiences.

 

6. Admiral Yi is before all else a symbol of pride and inspiration to the Korean Navy. To this day, much research takes place on his tactics and leadership methods at the Republic of Korea Naval Academy, Republic of Korea Navy, the Naval Education & Training Command and the Republic of Korea Marine Corps.



[1]According to Right Naval Station Warfare Formations with Illustrations published in 1780, over ten naval formations were used by the Korean Navy such as the Command, the Crane Wing, the Little Crane, the Straight, the Diamond, the Wedge, the Right Left Chal, the Circle, the Curvature and the Two Line.

[2] Korea employed multiple-masted ships from the Silla period (BC 57 AD 935). A Japanese record states that the ships used by Baekje and merchant ships of Chang Bo-Go of Silla had multiple masts. The superior performance of such ships came to be known to China also, and an ancient Chinese text Defending the Seas: A Discussion explains that The turtle-shaped ship of Korea can raise and lay down its sail at will, and it can travel with equal ease whether the wind is adverse or the tide low.

[3] The main type of timber traditionally used in Korea for shipbuilding is pine; to increase its strength oak, in particular the evergreen, was often used. Korean pine often has knots and bends, and because it was dangerous to process such a tree into thin timber, it was processed thickly to reinforce the strength. Traditional Japanese ships were commonly made out of the Japanese cedar or fir, which are lighter and easier to process than pine. Capitalizing on this, traditional Japanese ships have been built out of timber processed thinly and accurately. But strength-wise, cedars and firs suffer from the drawback of being weaker than pine. This in the end meant that Japanese ships were built out of weak material processed thinly, while Korean ships with strong material processed into thick timber.

 


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