Admiral Yi Sun-Sin served as a naval commander for the Joseon Dynasty during the 16th century. He is famous for his many naval battles against the Japanese that took place during the Imjin War. Placed at par with one of the West’s greatest commanders, Horatio Nelson, Admiral Yi took part in 23 or more naval engagements, all against the Japanese during his entire career. Even though, he had no prior training in naval war strategies before he took command, he holds the enviable prestige of being undefeated at sea and not one ship was lost under his command. Dutiful, stoic and brave in battle, he earned the respect of his men as well as the common people of Joseon Korea. But this popularity came at a steep price as internal squabbling among his peers and royal politics resulted in him being imprisoned and tortured, not once but twice. Both times, he had to face the ignominy of being demoted to the lowest rank of a soldier after being pardoned, and yet he dutifully abided without complaint. Unlike his western contemporaries, his humanity, that of a concerned leader, father, and son is celebrated as much as his military genius.
Childhood & Early Life
Yi Sun-Sin was born on 28 April 1545, in Seoul, Korea into an aristocratic family that belonged to the ‘Deosku Yi’ clan, under the rule of the Joseon Dynasty. However, he spent much of his growing years in Asan. He had four siblings.
Early in his life, Yi Sun-Sin met Ryu Seong-ryong and two forged a close friendship. Ryu went on to become a prominent scholar and official of the Joseon dynasty, and proved critical to Yi’s future achievements and freedom.
In 1566, Yi Sun-Sin began his basic training in traditional military arts which included swordsmanship, horse riding and archery and finally passed his military examinations in 1576.
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Yi Sun-Sin’s first posting in 1580, as a naval commander, was in the southern tip of Korea. After speaking out against corrupt practices of his seniors, he was transferred to the Konwon fortress in northern Korea as punishment.
Shortly after taking command of Konwon fortress in 1583, he successfully thwarted an assault by Jurchen forces and captured Mu Pai Nai, their leader. Later that year, his father died, and he had to resign his post to observe the obligatory mourning period that lasted three years.
He returned to military service in 1586 and led a string of victories against the Jurchen. Jealous of his accomplishments, his superiors, led by General Yi Il falsely accused him of desertion during battle, which resulted in his removal from service, imprisonment and torture. He got a full pardon after the king intervened.
He re assumed his post of commander of Jeolla Left Naval Station in 1591, and quickly began strengthening the regional navy’s preparedness, prime among them being the resurrection and construction of the famed ‘Geobukseon’ or turtle ships.
In 1592, under Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s orders, Japan began its bloodiest assault on Joseon Korea. However, Yi Sun-Sin was ready, and in 1592-1593, his fleet participated in four naval campaigns, emerging victorious in all of them, destroying and sinking hundreds of Japanese ships in the process.
In 1593, he was given the combined command of the navies of Jeolla, Gyeongsang and Chungcheong provinces, under the title, ‘Naval Commander of the Three Provinces’, in recognition of his massive success in the 1592 naval campaigns.
When his superiors planned a naval ambush, he refused to follow those orders citing his scepticism of the intel’s authenticity. As punishment, he was relieved of his command and arrested in 1597, imprisoned and tortured. After his pardon, he had to re-enlist as a common soldier once again.
When Hideyoshi ordered a second invasion of Korea that same year, Won Gyun, the stand-in Supreme Naval Commander, failed to stymie the enemy’s approach, and to make matters worse, the Japanese caught him fleeing during the battle of Chilchonryang, and he was beheaded. Seeing the reverses, the Joseon court pushed for Yi Sun-Sin’s reinstatement as Supreme Naval Commander.
In October 1597, employing tactics developed after thorough study of the location, climate and tidal flow, he lured a huge Japanese fleet into the Myeongnyang Strait, and with his paltry fleet of 12 vessels and 120 sailors, he routed the Japanese in a naval battle where he was outnumbered 25 to 1.
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On 15 December 1598, an allied fleet of Joseon Korea and the Chinese Ming dynasty attempted to blockade a large Japanese fleet at the Noryang Strait. Under his and Ming Admiral Chen Leng’s command, they decimated the 500 odd ships trying to retreat. The stunning victory however came at the cost of Admiral Yi’s life.
He resurrected and improved upon the building of specialized turtle ships. These ships had a much faster speed than their Japanese counterparts, and roughly 40 cannons poking out from every direction. Fully enclosed, the deck was iron bound, with thick wood underneath to protect the gun crew and oarsmen from melee charges.
His understanding of locations, its geography and local weather conditions helped him device winning naval strategies. He never lost a naval battle during his time.
Awards & Achievements
He was posthumously awarded the title of ‘Chung-mugong’ which literally means Loyalty-Chivalry. He was also granted the title ‘Prince of Deokpung Chungmuro’
Family & Personal Life
Yi Sun-Sin married Lady Bang in 1564 and fathered four children with her; three sons and a daughter. Keeping with the practice of the times, he had a concubine with whom he fathered four more children; two sons and two daughters.
Stoic in battle, he nevertheless showed immense compassion towards problems of those serving under him as well as refugees. He always ensured safety of refugees during a battle and rehabilitated them after on new land.
He died on 16 December 1598 after being hit by a stray bullet while commanding an allied blockade of a massive Japanese fleet trying to retreat from Sachon Bay. Aware of his fatal wound, he ordered his nephew Yi Wan, one of two witnesses (the other being his son, Yi Ho) to don his armour and battle drum and keep fighting. His death was revealed only after the battle ended, and his body was brought back to Asan and buried next to his father’s body.
Yi Sun-Sin is considered the greatest military hero across North and South Korea. In South Korea, the ‘Chungmugong’ is the country’s third highest military honour. Whereas North Korea awards its naval commanders with ‘Order of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin’ for showing outstanding leadership qualities.
Prominent statues of him can be found in Seoul and Busan, not forgetting the streets, circles and bridges that carry his name.
There is even a taekwondo pattern named ‘Chungmu’ after him.