3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
The Imjin War Song of the Great Peace


Ch 12 - Japanese Invasions

The Home Front

While Admiral Yi Sun-sin continued to hamper Hideyoshi's ability to launch fresh attacks in Choson, the people of Choson, faced with a direct threat to their personal wealth and security, formed guerilla bands to fight, not to preserve the government, but to preserve their own way of life.

Admiral Yi sailed for Pusan in late August 1592, intent on destroying every last remaining Japanese ship, most of which were concentrating in the area of Pusan Bay. After three successive defeats, the Japanese had learned the best way to protect their ships was to anchor them close ashore beneath fortified hills for protection where they could take advantage of their superiority in shore guns and use their troops armed with matchlock rifles. Admiral Yi's fleet of only 166 ships charged into the Pusan anchorage on September 1 to attack some 470 enemy ships defended by thousands of Japanese on the nearby hills. The Japanese unleashed a nearly continuous barrage of arrows, rifle and cannon fire, yet despite the hail of falling projectiles, Admiral Yi pressed the attack.

The Battle of Pusan Harbor was an assault deep into enemy territory and is eloquent testimony to the bravery and courage of Choson's fighting sailors. Pusan Bay echoed with gunfire from the day-long battle as the Choson fleet repeatedly rowed their ships deep into Pusan Harbor, attacking the Japanese under a barrage of enemy fire and successfully sinking or destroying 133 Japanese ships, many caught at anchor. Admiral Yi Sun-sin understood that if he totally destroyed the Japanese fleet, it would "block the retreating route of the Japanese pouring down from the north, [and] the enemy thus trapped would probably become guerrillas in all provinces. . . ." Admiral Yi also understood his own navy's capabilities and limitations. Once he reached the point of diminishing returns, he called off the attack. The gallant admiral withdrew from Pusan Bay as night fell without having lost a single ship, unwilling to risk anymore lives or ships needlessly.

Admiral Yi Sun-sin stands, without exaggeration, as the single greatest hero in Korean history. Compared with other famous naval battles in history, Admiral Yi's exploits and his navy's victories stand in a class with the Spanish defeat of the Turks off the Cyprus coast in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Each of these great naval engagements resulted in a significant turning point in naval warfare. The Battle of Lepanto marked the end of the era dominated by massive oar-powered war galleys and the defeat of the Spanish Armada marked the beginning of a new era dominated by the use of the heavily-armed, sail-powered man-of-war.

In 1571, Don Juan de Austria, the half-brother of Spain's Philip II, commanded the massive fleet of the Holy League against the fleet of the Ottoman Turks in the Gulf of Lepanto (Gulf of Corinth). The Battle of Lepanto was the last major naval battle fought by opposing fleets of rowing war galleys utilizing boarding tactics against each other. The Japanese relied on boarding tactics as their primary attack method in naval battles during the Imjin War, but Admiral Yi consistently denied them the opportunity to use them.

When King Henry VIII ordered new cannon installed on his warships in 1512, the result was the powerful English man-of-war. Powered by large sails and armed with heavy cannon mounted low on the cargo deck that fired through gun ports in the hull, the man-of-war stood in sharp contrast to the lightly armed Spanish galleys which still relied on boarding tactics as their principal fighting technique. The removal of the ornate elevated decks fore and aft made these ships lighter, less bulky and much easier to maneuver, a critical quality if a captain was going to avoid close quarter combat with an opponent. The development of England's man-of-war makes one appreciate Admiral Yi's development of the kobukson and its ultimate impact on Choson's history.

In the late 16th century, Spain's King Phillip II sent his "Invincible Armada" of 125 ships into the English Channel to ferry the Duke of Parma's army from the Spanish Netherlands across the channel and land them in England. There they would march on London, capture Queen Elizabeth I, and proceed to conquer the entire country. When the heavy Spanish galleys under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia arrived off the southwest coast of England in mid-July 1588, an English fleet led by Lord Howard and the privateer Francis Drake sailed into the channel to attack.

The more maneuverable English ships avoided close-in fighting, but harassed the Spanish galleys as they sailed up the English Channel to Calias. Between July 31 and August 8, individual English ships inflicted considerable damage by continually sailing around the heavier Spanish galleys using "hit and run" tactics. The Spanish, who began the fight in their traditional frontal line formation, reacted to the unorthodox English tactics by breaking their formation to fight individually, thus forfeiting their greatest strength. The resulting chaos caused by separate fights between individual ships turned the battle in England's favor.

In danger of a total defeat, the Duke of Medina Sedonia made a fateful decision to forego the invasion and return to Spain via the North of Scotland and Ireland. The English fleet pursued the Spanish into the North Sea for three days, breaking off and returning to England only after they ran out of ammunition. The few Spanish ships that managed to survive the violent storms off Scotland and Ireland limped back to Spain totally defeated and demoralized. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was an English victory only in the sense that its new warships held their own against the might of the Spanish Navy. It was certainly not a victory of English naval tactics, since they had no coordinated battlefield strategy. The free-for-all battle involving one-on-one engagements showed they had no idea how to apply their cannons effectively, but it also marked the beginning of a new era in naval warfare that used sailing men-of-war armed with heavy cannon.

England was lucky in 1588. Because early cannon were inaccurate, the British didn't understand that the best way to maximize the man-of-war's firepower was to sail in line-ahead column formation, to turn broad-side to their target and unleash all their cannons at once. Admiral Yi Sun-sin understood this principle because he read Sun Tzu. Furthermore, Admiral Yi did not rely on luck to win a fight. Just four years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Admiral Yi, who had never heard of Spain or England, consistently applied the right technology and used the right strategy to defeat the Japanese in 1592. Like the English, Admiral Yi had superiority over his enemies with fast, maneuverable warships. Both England and Choson adopted new sea-fighting techniques to thwart an enemy whose strengths lay in its soldiers and boarding tactics. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada ended in a draw. Admiral Yi Sun-sin however, was decisive in his victories and won every battle in 1592 against a far larger number of enemy ships without losing a single warship of his own! Neither Sir John Hawkins nor Sir Francis Drake could make that claim in 1588.

Hideyoshi's armies entrenched well north of Seoul could be supplied only by sea. General Kuroda Nagamasa, holding the region west of Pyongyang, depended completely on Japanese shipping for resupply, shipping that had to sail northward through waters under the full command of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The Choson navy's spectacular summer offensive erased all hope of resupply or reinforcement and left the Japanese army to itself and its own resources for survival. Admiral Yi's achievements not only imperiled Japanese supply routes and hampered Hideyoshi's ability to launch fresh attacks in Choson, it had the lasting benefit of keeping the grain-rich Cholla Province out of Japanese hands. Stung more than once by this crafty naval officer, after three months of fighting the Japanese learned to avoid Admiral Yi on the open sea. They changed tactics and began making night raids and avoiding areas patrolled by the Choson Navy.

Japan soon faced a new set of challenges from the Choson people, who responded in a very interesting way to the presence of Japanese troops on their native soil. Despite the calamitous threat posed by the invasion, the common people's deep disaffection with their own government led many to actually refuse to support the government in defense of the country. Once the threat to their own estates and land holdings became a reality however, when the Japanese presence actually threatened their personal wealth and security, a boiling rage among the people swept the peninsula. People suddenly found the inspiration to fight, not to preserve the government, but to preserve their own way of life. The same population that earlier reacted so indifferently to government efforts to muster fresh troops to defend their country, suddenly took up arms in defense of their own homes.

In district after district, peasant farmers and slaves coalesced around a single leader, generally a member of the rural aristocracy, to form small fighting units. Literally hundreds of guerilla bands, including bands of Buddhist monks, large and small alike, sprang to life amidst the Japanese. As these guerilla bands gained strength, they expanded their area of operations. Using hit and run tactics, guerrilla fighters often dealt severe and stinging blows to Japanese military operations.

Once the Choson populace began to fight the Japanese, a number of heroic battles took place that earned a number of people a lasting place in Korean history Samyoung Taesa. Cho Hon led a guerilla force that rose from OkChon in ChungChong Province and routed the Japanese from Chongju. Cho died in a later assault on Kumsan. Kwak Chae-u assembled a guerilla force in Uiryong in Kyongsang Province and, in battles along the Naktong River, drove the Japanese out of the Uiryong-Changgyong area. Kim Chon-il led a guerilla force that repeatedly harassed the Japanese in the area around Suwon.

Ming China finally responded to King Sonjo's plea for help in July 1592, by sending a woefully inadequate 5,000 man division into Choson. After crossing the Yalu River near Uiju, the token force bravely marched southeastward toward Pyongyang. General Konishi led his forces in a single night battle that swiftly decimated the entire Chinese division. Basking in his victory over the Chinese, Konishi eagerly anticipated the arrival of reinforcements sailing up the Taedong River so he could begin the actual invasion of China. He was not strong enough to move north without them. When he finally learned of the crushing defeat of Japanese shipping at sea and that reinforcements would never come, he realized there would be no invasion of China. He sat as far north as the Japanese would ever get. The Japanese army was spread across north-central Choson at the time and held a strong enough position they could wait for further orders. As they waited through the autumn of 1592 with no word from Japan, supplies ran low and their position became more precarious. Worse, the Chinese were concentrating a strong, well-equipped army north of the Yalu River.

In January 1593, General Li Ju-sung led fifty-thousand battle-hardened Chinese troops, fresh from subduing a Mongol rebellion in Manchuria, across the frozen Yalu River in the dead of winter. This Chinese army, unlike its ill-fated predecessors, marched directly to Pyongyang and successfully drove General Konishi out of the city. General Konishi withdrew his battle-worn troops south to Seoul, pursued all the way by General Li. Choson's citizen guerrillas constantly harassed the starving Japanese soldiers, who were taxed nearly to the limit of their endurance. The fighting withdrawal halted at Pyokchegwan, just north of Seoul. Though Chinese and Japanese troops fought pitched battles outside the city walls, no large-scale attacks occurred on Seoul itself. Within the city however, Japanese troops killed many people and burned much of the capital, including the Kyongbok Palace, the Changdok Palace, and numerous other structures that dated from the beginning of the Yi dynasty.

Japanese and Chinese troops fought to a standstill in a fierce battle at Pyokchegwan. Local guerilla forces under Kwon Yul, anticipating a joint attack on Seoul in concert with General Li Ju-sung's army, took up positions at Tohyang-san, the mountain redoubt south of Seoul on the north bank of the Han River near Haengju. The Chinese never arrived. General Li Ju-sung had pulled his army back to Pyongyang for a rest, leaving the guerrillas isolated. Nevertheless, Kwon Yul's small force successfully held their ground in the bloody fighting that raged around Haengju. The Japanese repeatedly sent out large-scale assaults against Tohyang-san, but failed to dislodge Kwon's guerrillas. When the defenders ran out of arrows, women in the fortress helped gather stones that were thrown against the Japanese troops. Admiral Yi Pin resupplied the Tohyang-san fortress during the fighting by sailing up the Han River in time to deliver more arrows. Kwon Yul's guerilla force successfully held their ground in a campaign that is remembered as one of Korea's three great triumphs against the Japanese during the war.

The Japanese position gradually went from bad to worse. With no hope of resupply by sea, pinned down in Seoul by continuously mounting pressure from the Chinese army and local guerrillas, with food supplies cut off and his forces now reduced by nearly one third from desertion, disease and death, Konishi was compelled to sue for peace. General Li Ju-sung offered General Konishi a chance to negotiate an end to the hostilities. When negotiations got underway in the spring of 1593, China and Choson agreed to cease hostilities if the Japanese would withdraw from Choson altogether. General Konishi had no option but to accept the terms, but he would have a hard time convincing Hideyoshi he had no other choice.

Unbroken in spirit, but physically weakened by hunger to the point they were no longer an effective fighting force, the Japanese army departed Seoul in late May 1593, one year from the date of their invasion at Pusan. As the remnants of Konishi's division moved out of Seoul, Chinese troops marched southward from Pyongyang in a screening formation to cover the Japanese and ensure their departure. The Chinese intended to prevent them from regrouping and again attacking to the north. Choson guerrillas joined in the pursuit by continually harassing and attacking Japanese soldiers throughout their arduous retreat to the port of Pusan and the southeastern coast of Kyongsang Province. Following the recapture of Seoul, the Chinese commander Li Ju-sung observed that,

"...the country all about was lying fallow, and a great famine stared the Koreans in the face....the dead bodies of its victims lay all along the road."

This should have been the end of the war, and General Li Ju-sung apparently believed it was over, for he marched his army northward, leaving Choson to take care of matters itself, even though the Japanese had yet to sail for home. Before the Japanese began loading aboard ships, orders arrived from Hideyoshi commanding the Japanese army to seize positions on a number of capes or promontories along Choson's south coast that were easily defended on the land side and to build entrenched camps. General Konishi strongly objected to such a plan, which was neither conducting a proper war nor completely withdrawing from Choson. Such sound advice nearly cost Konishi his head, but under specific orders to do so, the Japanese placed a number of strong rearguard detachments at selected points along the south coast to cover their evacuation. The bulk of Hideyoshi's war-weary troops finally sailed for Japan.

Once peace negotiations between China and Japan finally got underway, for some unknown reason Chinese negotiators gave Ming Emperor Shen Tsung the mistaken impression that he was about to deal with a minor state that had been subdued by war. Furthermore, they conveyed the idea that the Japanese regent, Hideyoshi, was prepared to become his vassal. Under such conditions, the Chinese sought to resolve the issue in their favor by including Japan in their tributary system of foreign relations. They would establish Hideyoshi as king of Japan and grant him the privilege of formal tribute trade relations with the Ming dynasty.

In Japan, Hideyoshi's negotiators apparently led him to believe that China was suing for peace and ready to accept him as their emperor. Thus, Hideyoshi issued the demands of a victor;  first, a daughter of the Ming emperor must be sent to become the wife of the Japanese emperor;  second, the southern provinces of Choson must be ceded to Japan;  third, normal trade relations between China and Japan must be restored;  and fourth, a Choson prince and several high-ranking Yi government officials must be sent to Japan as hostages. Bargaining from such fundamentally different perspectives, there was no prospect whatsoever for these talks to succeed.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi needed time to rebuild his fleet and raise a fresh army before the almost certain protests over the presence of Japanese garrisons along Choson's south coast developed into military action to force them out. A past master of the art of plausible delay, Hideyoshi kept Chinese envoys waiting for months on various pretexts then sent them home with an entirely new set of demands he knew would never be accepted. For nearly three years, both sides engaged in long and drawn out negotiations. Envoys came and went, with constant protests from one side and constant evasions and excuses from the other. The needless misunderstandings between China and Japan proved irreconcilable.

While the diplomats delayed, Hideyoshi's shipwrights were building a new fleet as quickly as they could hammer the planks together. A new army was being trained and equipped. Large stores of food were being quietly cached in Japanese garrison camps along the south Choson coast. All the while, Choson's former great fleet sat rotting at anchor, with a few ships being used in the coastal trade. Admiral Yi Sun-sin lived the quiet, dull life of isolated retirement. In the summer of 1596, preparations were well underway to mount a second invasion of Choson. Hideyoshi appointed General Konishi Yukinaga commanding officer of his new fleet and quietly slipped a force of 100,000 men into the Choson garrison positions. Realizing that Ming China was adamantly refusing to entertain his demands, let alone submit to them, Hideyoshi suddenly exploded in a carefully affected attitude of rage at the latest Chinese emissaries. Claiming that China was trying to force Japan into submission, he stated in his reply that he intended to punish Choson for impeding good relations between his own country and China (a claim totally without foundation) and broke off all talks with the Chinese.


Valid 4.01 Transitional HTML Code

The Imjin War Song of the Great Peace