Commander Gwak’s resignationKorea is raving about a film centered on the story of Adm. Yi Sun-sin, who led the Korean Navy to a victory in a battle against Japan during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Critics say that the film’s popularity reflects citizens’ yearning for formidable leadership. Whether you like it or not, you have to see the movie to put in your two cents.
I haven’t watched the film, so I cannot discuss its content, but there is another hero from the Japanese invasion worth mentioning: Gwak Jae-woo, who raised a volunteer army less than 10 days after Japanese pirates set foot on the Korean Peninsula.
In addition to his glorious feat during the invasion, Gwak’s resignation was also impressive. He was appointed commander of Gyeongsang in 1599, but he sent a letter the following year to the king and returned home before receiving approval for his resignation. He cited that he quit because the country wanted to focus on the Navy and abandon land defense. He also lamented the lack of discussion regarding the decision.
When Japan invaded Korea in 1592, Joseon was hardly prepared for war, and the court discussed getting rid of the Navy and concentrating on forces on land. Kim Yeo-ul, governor of Euiju, was removed from office and was imprisoned for opposing the change, arguing that it was foolish to allow the enemy to enter the country.
Then, when Admiral Yi drove off enemies at sea, a plan was proposed to get rid of the Army and focus on the Navy.
The situation is similar to the current debate of Army conscription versus a volunteer system, which should be discussed separately from military violence. The country was divided over the dissolution of the Navy, just as politicians today are arguing over a bill at the National Assembly.
The second reason for Gwak’s resignation had to do with diplomacy. “The envoy from Japan is detained, and friendly relations cannot be mentioned in court,” said Gwak.
The year after Japan withdrew, it requested peace. The Joseon court turned down the proposal and detained the Japanese envoy. Gwak deplored the royal court for being unnecessarily bold and failing to take a real interest in “making peace and doing its job.”
Similarly, Korea-Japan relations today are full of friction without real interest, and foreign policy is not insightful.
The last reason for Gwak’s resignation was his disagreement with an appointment decision. Gwak was displeased that Prime Minister Lee Won-ik was replaced. He would be greatly disappointed to see that his descendants are tied up in chronic political strife and cannot seem to hold an appointment hearing.
It is the duty of Gwak’s descendants to learn from history. If we don’t fulfill our duty, we are bound to repeat the tragic history. We have to calmly look back on ourselves. “There is no curing a sick man who believes himself in health,” warned Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel.
*The author is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 15, Page 31
BY LEE HOON-BEOM
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