[OBSERVER]The worst calamity in Korean history

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[OBSERVER]The worst calamity in Korean history

The 20th century was not kind to Korea. Japan seized Korea’s independence in 1905, and when liberation finally came after World War II, the country suffered division, culminating in a savage civil conflict that is unresolved to this day.
And yet, half a century later, life is pretty pleasant in South Korea. Maybe it wasn’t such a terrible century after all, compared to the 16th century.
Then, Japan embarked upon a grand venture to invade Korea as a waystation to its conquest of the epicenter of global culture and civilization, Ming China. The story is told by Samuel Hawley in his magnificent history of “The Imjin War.” (The name comes from the year the war was launched, 1592, the Year of the Water Dragon, or Imjin.) The book is jointly published by the Institute of East Asian Studies, UC-Berkeley and the Royal Asiatic Society in Seoul.
Mr. Hawley, a professor at Yonsei University, seems to have read pretty much everything about this long-ago military campaign. The text is supported with 66 pages of notes and bibliography. Yet the book is paced for a general, nonspecialist reader. It is a wonderful read.
It opens with three chapters that set the background in the three countries. Ming China, the apex of Chinese culture, had entered its decline. Korea, pleased to be known as “Little China,” was Ming’s most faithful vassal state. Japan was hardly more than a barbarian realm, riven by warlord feuds. The fascinating central figure of “The Imjin War” is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ended Japan’s civil wars, unified the archipelago and then, needing new worlds to conquer, cast his gaze upon China. Was he a genius, a psychopath or both?
A farmer’s son, small and ugly, Hideyoshi became overlord of Japan, but wanted also to be known as refined. He devoted many hours to the Japanese tea ceremony and cast himself in leading roles of Noh theater productions. Hideyoshi asked Portugal to support his planned conquest of China by supplying military ships, promising in return to decree that all China turn Christian. Once he was master of China’s armies, Hideyoshi intended to use them to conquer India.
Meanwhile, there was Korea. Hideyoshi ordered his military officers to treat the Koreans charitably so they would willingly ally with him. Alas, the Koreans thought they were being invaded, not recruited. Hideyoshi’s army bogged down for six years, winning practically all its battles but unable to secure supply lines needed to get to China. The commander at last declared victory and brought the survivors back to Japan. The greatest Korean hero was Yi Sun-shin. While other Korean commanders scuttled their own ships or simply ran away from the advancing Japanese, Admiral Yi, with his “turtle ships,” annihilated the Japanese navy and blocked the enemy’s supply routes. His reward was a rebuke and recall by the faction-ridden Korean court. Were the turtle ships iron-clad? Every Korean insists that they were, but Mr. Hawley’s study of contemporary descriptions inclines him to believe that the turtle shells were simply heavy wooden roofs with iron spikes to repel enemy boarders.
Other absorbing passages describe the weaponry and military tactics of the time. The Japanese were the first Asians to use firearms effectively in war, having learned about them from Portuguese traders. Muskets gave Japan military supremacy, but they also made any rude farmer the fighting equal of a samurai warrior. For the rank-conscious Japanese this was offensive, and after the war they went back to fighting the honorable way, face to face, with swords. The technology to make firearms was retained and improved, but purely as an art.
Mr. Hawley’s book is superbly organized.
But the author might have been well served by better editing; some events and incidents are told more than once. Others have their own criticisms. Rather than read the book, many Koreans, Mr. Hawley says, consulted its index and then expressed outrage that the author did not confirm received family stories about a venerated ancestor’s heroism.
If so, it is because of the meticulous record-keeping of the Korean court. Officials saved every scrap of paper and compiled annals with astonishing objectivity. Every act of folly or cowardice is preserved, alongside the many stories of fortitude and heroism. It is Mr. Hawley’s judgment that the Japanese invasion of 400 years ago was the single worst calamity of Korean history. The author reckons that at least 2 million Koreans perished from war and famine. By contrast, the Korean War of 1950-53, savage as it was, cost the lives of about 1 million civilians.
South Korea bounced back within a generation. But in many ways, Joseon Korea never recovered from the Imjin War; even 260 years later the central royal palace in Seoul lay in ruins because the kingdom was still too impoverished to rebuild it. And, of course, ill will between Japan and Korea persists. The misnamed “Ear Tomb” in Kyoto houses not ears but noses ― tens of thousands of them, cut from slain Koreans during the Imjin campaign. These grisly trophies cannot be returned to Korea, the Japanese government has decided, because they are a Japanese “national cultural asset.”

* The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at GSIS of Yonsei University.

by Harold Piper
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)