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The Life of Choong-Moo

Yi, Soon-Sin was born in Seoul on the 28th April 1545. After his father left his job as a government official, the family moved to Asan, Chungcheongdo province and the young Soon-Sin started his education. He at first chose to study the liberal arts, but later decided to take the military course. He passed the entrance examination at the age of 32 and was appointed as a lower officer of Hamgyeong-do province to begin his military service.

After rising through the ranks, Yi was appointed as naval commander of the Left Division of Cheollado in 1591, when he was 47 years old. It was at this time that he came up with the idea of the armoured battleship "Kobukson", or "turtle ship", a galley ship decked over with iron plating to protect the soldiers and rowers. It was so named because the curvature of the iron plates covering the top decks resembled a turtle's shell. It had a large iron ram at its prow in the shape of a turtle's head with an open mouth, from which smoke, arrows and missiles were discharged. There was another such opening in the rear, and six more on either side, all for the same purpose. The armored shell was fitted with iron spikes and knives that were disguised with straw or grass and designed to impale unwanted boarders. It was truly revolutionary, the most highly-developed warship of its time, and it was to play a crucial part in the ensuing war against Japan.

When the Japanese Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power in 1590, his priority was the conquest of China, as he knew that a war with China would drain the financial resources of his rival fuedal lords of Japan and cement his hold on power. In 1592 he approached Korea and requested her aid in this conquest. When Korea refused, he ordered two of his generals, Kato Kiyomasa (the Buddhist commander) and Konishi Yukinaga (the Christian commander), to attack Korea. His plan was to sweep through the peninsula and on to conquer China.

Thanks to their larger army and superior technology (the Japanese had imported muskets from Europe and developed their own, whereas the Korean army was armed with swords, bows and arrows and spears), the Japanese troops reached Seoul in just 15 days and occupied the entire country by May 1592.

In early 1592, at the start of the conflict, Admiral Yi Soon-Sin, in charge of the Right Division of Chulla Province, made his headquarters in the port city of Yosu. It was in Yosu at this time that he constructed his famous Kobukson; the first one was launched and outfitted with cannons just two days before the first Japanese troops landed at Pusan, and in May 1592, Admiral Yi engaged the Japanese at Okpa. In his first battle, Yi led 80 ships against a Japanese naval force of 800 aiming to re-supply their northern bases from their port at Pusan. By the end of the day, Yi had set 26 Japanese ships on fire and forced the rest to flee. Giving chase, he sank many more, leaving the entire Japanese fleet scattered.

Several major engagements followed in which Admiral Yi annihilated every Japanese squadron he encountered. Courageous and a tactical genius, he even seemed to be able to outguess the enemy. In one incident, Yi dreamed that a robed man called out to him "The Japanese are coming". Seeing this as a sign, he rose to assemble his ships, sailed out, and surprised a large enemy fleet. He burned 12 enemy ships and scattered the rest. In the course of the battle, he demonstrated his bravery by not showing pain when shot in the shoulder, revealing his injury only when the battle was over, when he bared his shoulder and ordered that the bullet be cut out.

In August 1592, 100,000 Japanese troop reinforcements headed around the Pyongyang peninsula and up the west coast. Admiral Yi confronted them at Kyon-Na-Rang, among the islands off the southern coast of Korea. Pretending at first to flee, Admiral Yi then turned and began to ram the Japanese ships with his sturdy Kobukson. His fleet copied his tactic and they sank 71 Japanese vessels. When a Japanese reinforcement fleet arrived, Admiral Yi's fleet sank 48 of them and forced many more to be beached as the Japanese sailors tried to escape on land. This engagement is considered to be one of history's greatest ever naval battles, and it utterly crushed Japan's ambitions of conquering China.

In a brilliant move, Admiral Yi then took the entire Korean Navy of 180 ships, small and large, into the Japanese home port at Pusan harbour. There he proceeded to attack the main Japanese naval force of more than 500 ships, that were still at anchor. Using fire boats and strategic manoeuvring, he sank over half of the Japanese vessels, but, receiving no land support, was eventually forced to withdraw. With this battle, Admiral Yi completed what some naval historians have called the most important series of naval engagements in the history of the world.

Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin's dominance over the sea was so complete that no Japanese supply ships could reach Korea, and the Japanese forces began to dwindle. The stalemate naval blockade forced Admiral Yi into many months of inactivity, during which he prepared for the future; he had his men make salt by evaporating seawater, and used it to pay local workers for building ships and barracks, and to trade for materials his navy needed. His energy and patriotism were so great that many men worked for nothing. Having heard not only of Yi's military feats, but his contributions to the navy as well, the king conferred upon him the admiralty of the surrounding three provinces.

Unfortunately, a Japanese spy named Yosira managed to ingratiate himself to the Korean General Kim, Eung-Su, and convinced the General that the Japanese General Kato was due to attack Korea with a great fleet. He convinced General Kim to send Admiral Yi to lie in wait and sink the fleet, but Yi refused on the grounds that the area given by Yosira was studded with rocks and highly dangerous. Admiral Yi's refusal to follow orders was seized upon by his enemies at court, and they insisted on his arrest. As a result, in 1597 Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin was relieved of command, placed under arrest and taken to Seoul in chains, where he was beaten and tortured. It was only the fervour of his supporters in promoting his past record that prevented the king from having him executed. Spared the death penalty, Admiral Yi was demoted to the rank of common foot soldier. He responded to this humiliation as a most obedient subject, going quietly about his work as if his rank and orders were totally appropriate.

When Hideyoshi learned from Yosira that Yi, Soon-Sin was out of the way, the Japanese attacked Korea again with 140,000 men in thousands of ships. Admiral Yi's replacement, Won Kyun, led the Korean navy to a humiliating defeat that almost resulted in its total destruction. Fearing for his country's security, the king hastily reinstated Yi, Soon-Sin as naval commander, and, in spite of his previous treatment, Yi immediately set out on foot for his former base at Hansan. There, with a force of just 12 ships, he repelled a Japanese fleet of 133 ships sailing through the Myongyang Strait at night by hiding, spread out, in the shadow of a mountain and firing constantly as they passed, convincing the Japanese that they were facing a vastly superior force. The next day more Japanese ships arrived, but Yi fearlessly sailed straight at them, sinking 30 and causing the remainder to flee in panic as they recognised the return of the fearless Admiral. Yi gave chase and destroyed the fleet, killing the Japanese Commander Madasi.

Korea was relatively weak at that time and relied heavily upon troops supplied by her close ally China (who had helped to drive Japan back following their initial occupation in 1592), and, in 1598, the Chinese emperor sent Admiral Chil Lin to command Korea's western coast. Admiral Chil Lin was an extremely vain man and would take advice from no one. Knowing this to be a serious problem, Admiral Yi made every effort to win the trust of the Chinese admiral, and his political skills proved to be as effective as his military ones as he allowed Admiral Chil Lin to take credit for many of his own victories. He was willing to forgo the praise and let others reap the commendation in order to have the enemies of his country destroyed.

Yi, Soon-Sin was soon in charge of all strategy while Admiral Chil Lin took the credit. This arrangement made the Chinese seem successful, which so encouraged them that they gave Korea more of the aid she desperately needed. Admiral Chil Lin could not praise Admiral Yi enough, and repeatedly wrote to the Korean king So-Jon that "the universe did not contain another man who could perform the feats that Yi, Soon-Sin apparently found easy".

Unfortunately Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin never lived to see the rewards of the heroic efforts and brilliant strategies of his that led, finally, to the Japanese withdrawal at the end of 1598. On November 19, 1598, Admiral Yi was shot by a stray bullet during the final battle of the war. Even as he lay wounded on deck, he commanded that his body be hid by a shield so that his enemies could not see that he had fallen. To his oldest son, he whispered, "Do not weep, do not announce my death. Beat the drum, blow the trumpet, wave the flag for advance. We are still fighting. Finish the enemy to the last one." He was 54 years old when he died.

Although known primarily for his invention of the Kobukson, he also developed other military devices. One of his little-known inventions was a smoke generator in which sulphur and saltpetre were burned, emitting great clouds of smoke. This first recorded use of a smokescreen struck terror in the hearts of superstitious enemy sailors, and, more practically, it masked the movements of Admiral Yi's ships. Another of his inventions was a type of flamethrower, a small cannon with an arrow-shaped shell that housed an incendiary charge, that he used to set fire to enemy ships. Along with his inventions, the tactical manoeuvres that he pioneered, such as his use of the fishnet "V" formation and the use of two-salvo fire against ships, demonstrate Yi's brilliance as a naval tactician.

Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin was one of the greatest heroes in Korean history. He was posthumously awarded the honorary title of Choong-Moo (meaning "Loyalty-Chivalry") in 1643, and the Distinguished Military Service Medal of the Republic of Korea (the third highest) is named after this title. Numerous books praise his feats of glory and several statues and monuments commemorate his deeds. His name is held in such high esteem that when the Japanese fleet defeated the Russian navy in 1905, the Japanese admiral was quoted as saying "You may wish to compare me with Lord Nelson, but do not compare me with Korea's Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin...he is too remarkable for anyone."
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