[Outlook]A lesson from the 16th century

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[Outlook]A lesson from the 16th century

In the middle of the Joseon Dynasty, the Army used jeseung bangnyak, a local self-defense system.
When war broke out, small groups of troops led by local magistrates gathered in an area, forming a larger unit that was led by a general dispatched from the central government.
Before this, the army had jin-gwan cheje, a garrison-command structure in which garrisons of all sizes were created in provinces depending on their strategic values.
Jeseung bangnyak could be defined as a sort of zone defense and jin-gwan cheje was man-to-man defense. The local self-defense system seemed powerful and effective, but it was helplessly penetrated during the Japanese invasion of 1592.
Assembled troops were often attacked by enemies before their generals showed up.
Because the system was not meant to defend small areas, if the assembled troops were defeated once or twice, the province’s entire defense system collapsed.
One such scene is described in “Jingbirok,” the records of the 1592 Japanese invasion authored by then-Prime Minister Yu Seong-ryong.
“Magistrates led their troops and went to an assembly point. They spent nights by streams and waited for border patrol inspectors to come. Days passed, but inspectors still didn’t arrive. As enemies came nearer, the troops were perturbed. Rain poured down and soaked their clothes and there was no food left. At night, all the troops ran away and even magistrates hid themselves. When border patrol inspectors came there was nobody in sight.”
Yu maintained that the local self-defense system was the main cause of the defeat at the beginning of the war and the Army should adopt man-to-man defense instead.
But it wasn’t fair to say the local self-defense system was the only cause for the defeat because the system was adopted based on the principle that all healthy men serve as soldiers, which was broken when independent farmers became tenant farmers as their land was taken by the upper-class noblemen and bureaucrats.
Admiral Yi Sun-shin later won one battle after another and, in fact, the secret to his victories was the local self-defense system. As it has always been, the problem lies not in the system itself but in people.
Because the Joseon Dynasty enjoyed peace for 200 years, it became complacent.
For troops from all corners of the country to act in an orderly manner, they needed to train even when there was no emergency.
But both magistrates and the people regarded regular military exercises as troublesome extra duties. They wondered, “Why should we conduct military exercises in peacetime?”
Even when they were ordered to build a fortress when war was imminent, many complained and refused to help.
Prime Minister Yu lamented and wrote, “A friend wrote in his letter, ‘A river runs in front of our village. Would the Japanese fly over the river? Why should they make people build the fortress in vain?’ The vast ocean didn’t stop the Japanese from invading the country but he was certain that a small river would stop them. However, many shared the same opinion.”
Things are not much different nowadays from 400 years ago.
Last year, a remark by the defense minister resembled Yu’s lament.
Before all military commanders, the minister said, “Many want to make life in the Army more comfortable than strict and delude themselves that such a life represents a democratic army.”
He added that “Our armies have gone from being armies that are prepared to battle and win to armies that are maintained to stay out of trouble.”
Our armies have been competing to make life comfortable. Army bases boast of game parlors and singing parlors, not exercise fields.
Officers don’t want to upset or disturb soldiers. Regardless of their rank, everyone talks to everyone as if they were talking to friends.
One unit was even awarded for setting a good example, even though our country is technically still at war against North Korea.
The Sunshine Policy could be the right direction, but that doesn’t justify slackened armies.
It would still be the same even if our country was reunified right now. Armies must be prepared to win even if they have a battle tonight.
Of course, we can’t compare armies of today to those of the late 16th century.
But the defense minister’s remark that “soldiers must become experts on battles” rings true as Yu’s rebukes.
“When troops carry out military acts as if they were on a picnic in springtime, they are bound to be defeated.”

* The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom
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