On April 28, 1545, a boy was born in a town that is now within the South Korean capital, Seoul. This boy, named Yi Sun-sin, was destined to become one of the most important heroes of Korean history and the Joseon Dynasty in particular. Despite having a roller coaster of a career that saw him go from war hero to torture-victim and back to war hero, Yi was able to save his homeland from repeated conquest attempts from the Koreans longtime rivals, the Japanese.
In 1592, Japanese forces under the Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi attempted to launch an invasion of Korea as a precursor to a planned excursion against the Ming Chinese. Despite having no naval experience, Yi was put in charge of Korea’s naval defenses. In so doing, he revived a unique Korean ship, the Geobukseon: the Turtle Ship. These ships are known for being, perhaps, the first armored war ships in history were armed with a large number of cannon which made them nearly invisible in late 16th century naval warfare. By bringing these ships into action, Yi successfully repulsed the Japanese invasion. They would not try to invade Korea again for nearly six years.
In an attempt to neutralize this surprisingly capable naval leader, the Japanese hired a spy to act as a double agent whose maneuverings were intended back Yi into a corner and to have him removed from a position of authority. This plot worked incredibly well, as the spy was able to convince several influential generals that Yi was working with the Japanese. The admiral was arrested and imprisoned in Seoul where he was subjected to torture for much of 1597.
In August 1597, the Korean fleet, under its new command, was soundly defeated by their Japanese enemy. In response to this, the powers-that-were in Korea reinstated Yi since he had routinely shown how capable he was. After the terrible defeat in August, Yi only had 13 ships at his command, none of which were Turtle Ships. His adversary, however, had 300 ships. Yi’s tiny fleet met the Japanese armada in the Myeongnyang Strait. Through his ingenious naval command, Yi successfully held the strait against seemingly insurmountable odds and issued the Japanese fleet a decisive defeat.
A year later, in December 1598, Yi again met the Japanese at the Battle of Noryang. This time, he did not stand alone, but the Joseon fleet was reinforced by a Ming one. However, Yi was not to survive this encounter. Struck by a stray bullet after leading his forces to defeat, Yi died with honor on his flagship. He was buried with full honors alongside his father in his hometown. History has remembered Yi as one of the greatest naval combat leaders in history and is often remembered in the same breath as the British hero from the Napoleonic Wars, Admiral Nelson.
Featured Image. “Statue of Yi Sun-sin in Seoul.” by Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work, CC0.
“The Man Who Transformed Korea.” VANK.
“Admiral Yi and his turtle ship resurrect in late April.” KOIS. April 12, 2008.
Tucker, Spencer. A Global Chronology of Conflict. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2010.
Figure 1. “Yi Sun-sin.” By Unknown – http://www.koreanhero.net/en/NationalHeroOfKorea.htm, Public Domain.
Figure 2. “Turtle Ship.” By I, PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0.