A week spent with General Yi

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A week spent with General Yi



Kim Jin

There are many heroes in Korean history, and my personal picks are Yi Sun-sin, Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee because of their dramatic lives.

The three heroes achieved many great accomplishments and went through several ordeals.

Among them, I have always kept Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee close. There are various documents on these prolific figures, but I like to read photography books about them, which were compiled by journalist Ahn Byung-hoon. Whenever I feel sad or small, I open the books and read about the heroes.

However, I haven’t ever felt this close to Yi Sun-sin. When I flipped through his War Diary, Yi’s personal memoir, I had faint memories of a visit to Hyeonchungsa Shrine in Asan. I felt guilty for neglecting to pay enough respect to the hero who saved the country.

Last week, I attended the press preview of the movie “Myeongryang” and afterwards indulged in the War Diary. Among various modern translations, I chose to read “The Diary of Yi Sun-sin,” published in 1998. Interestingly, the four editors of the book, including Park Hye-il, are nuclear physicists.

Yi Sun-sin lived in chaotic times when corruption, lies and slander prevailed and defense was weak. But Yi Sun-sin stood tall and square. Although he was discharged from his position three times and imprisoned after being framed, he did not yield.

More surprisingly, Yi was a very realistic man. While officials in the capital debated in troubled times, Yi visited the field and geared up the defense. He invented the famed “turtle ship” and trained the soldiers. He joined in archery practice with his commanders. Two months before the Japanese invasion, he wrote, “I checked various fortification and defense fronts in the morning, and weaponry was ready.”

Fifteen days into the invasion, he called the commanders and told them, “You are all patriotic so forget about yourselves and rise against the enemy together.”

Admiral Yi was strict and resolute. Instead of lamenting, he took out his sword and acted. In his diary, he frequently wrote about punishment. “I had the officials and staffs beaten for failing to repair the warships” and “11 officials were beheaded as a punishment for constantly telling lies,” he wrote.

On the front line, Yi suffered from tremendous stress. He felt pressure to save the country and desperately wished for victory. This gave him nightmares and made him ill. “In my dream, I spoke to Prime Minister Yu Seong-ryong. We sat comfortably and shared our thoughts about the country, but the conversation made my heart heavy,” he wrote, along with, “I groaned in pain all day, and cold sweat wet my cloth.”

The intensity of truth in the War Diary is different from other history books. It is the personal statement of a commander in battle. Admiral Yi lit a candle at night and recorded his day. Who would write anything other than truth when he is faced with the universe? Yi, who originally applied for a civil service position, was a literary man. He would write a poem if he couldn’t write a diary entry.

“On Hansan Island, under the bright moon, while standing alone on the watchtower over the water, with a big sword held tightly in my hand, I am falling into a deep pit of agony,” he wrote.

Reading it felt as if the big sword on the statue in Gwanghwamun had flown next to me.

The Diary of Yi Sun-sin reminded me of the movie “Myeongryang.” The most memorable scene of the film is when Yi Sun-sin wrote a report to the king. The fleet led by Won Gyun was smashed up by the Japanese forces, and when Yi returned to the command, only a handful of ships were left to fight against the 330 Japanese ships. To the concerned king, Yi wrote, “I still have 12 ships left.” His bravery overwhelmed fear.

More than 400 years have passed since the dramatic life and times of Yi Sun-sin. While Korea is not at war, the country is still in chaos and instability. Korea is caught between China’s hegemony and Japan’s provocative moves. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un could make a final bet with nuclear missiles.

But the country is still wandering with no direction. After decades of peace, the military is disorganized. Most intellectuals are swayed by fads and fail to make straight arguments. Opposition party leaders frame those around the president. Many citizens have been tricked by the flag of “new politics.”

But the most serious crisis is that the leader in the Blue House is shaken. In the aftermath of the Sewol ferry tragedy, the leader, President Park Geun-hye, has lost power. Many worry about her failure. Before she entered the Blue House, she frequently quoted Yi Sun-sin.

Park is on vacation now. How about listening to the voice of Yi Sun-sin at the Uldolmok on Jindo? “I still have 12 ships left.”

JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, Page 31

*The author is an editorial writer of the Joongang Ilbo.

By Kim Jin

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