The Imjin War (임진왜란, which literally translates to "Japanese invasion of the Imjin year") is the name for two Japanese invasions of the Korean peninsula that took place in 1592 and 1598. The word "Imjin" is the Korean name for the 29th year in the Chinese sexagenary cycle, which was the year that the first invasion took place. This was an absolutely devastating war for Korea as it resulted in the deaths of around one million soldiers and civilians, the loss of over half of Korea's workable farmland, and the destruction of an innumerable number of cultural assets.
So why did the Japanese decide to invade Korea? Well Japan has always viewed Korea as a sort of stepping stone to the mainland and anytime Japan has found itself with imperialistic ambitions Korea has been its starting point for expansion. Of course, Korea was not the grand prize for Japan is this scheme. That distinction belongs to China and this was not the only time that Korea found itself utilized as a pawn in the chess match between the region's most powerful states.
Prior to the invasion, Japan had recently risen out of the turmoil of the Sengoku Period, also known as the Warring States Period, and had been unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590. As it turns out, decades of fighting amongst themselves had turned the Japanese into battle-hardened warriors and that, combined with the element of surprise and Joseon's ineffective defense policies, resulted in an amazing display of power on the part of Japan.
In stark contrast to Japan, Korea had experienced a period of relative peace since the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. Korea also viewed Japan as an inferior country and felt that they had no reason to fear an attack by Japan. This was in spite of the fact that Japan had demanded that Korea join Japan in its fight against the Chinese or face the consequences. After multiple diplomatic attempts were made to convince Korea to join his campaign, Hideyoshi decided that force would be the only way to convince Korea to join his cause.
The first Japanese fleet, commanded by So Yoshitoshi, departed Tsushima (island) on May 23, 1592 and after asking for safe passage through Korea (and of course being denied) they attacked Busan on May 24. The siege took the Koreans completely by surprise and the city, along with nearby Dongnae, fell to the Japanese invaders in three days. By June 3, Daegu, Gyeongju, and the rest of the Gyeongsang province (basically the entire southeast portion of Korea) had fallen to the Japanese (just 11 days after the start of war!). The Japanese continued their relentless assault northward at the Battle of Sangju ( 상주대첩 ) on June 5 and the Battle of Chungju ( 청주대첩 ) on June 8.
The Japanese arrived in Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) on June 10 to find it already abandoned by King Seonjo ( 선조 ) and General Kim Myong-won ( 김묭원 ) and already looted by the infuriated inhabitants. The capital was captured just 18 days after the start of the war.
The Righteous Army ( 의병 )
Things were certainly looking bleak at this point for the Koreans. Given the government's incompetence and lack of preparation for the Japanese assault, the defense of the country fell into the hands of the citizens. This gave rise to righteous armies, which were made up of normal, everyday citizens who resisted the Japanese invaders. The righteous armies utilized guerrilla tactics and were extremely successful in their attempt to undermine Japanese authority on the peninsula.
Despite the emergence of righteous armies all around the peninsula, the Japanese continued their assault and were successful in conquering almost the entire country. Keep in mind that Japan's original goal was not to conquer Korea, but rather to use Korea as a stepping stone in its eventual quest to challenge China. China obviously saw the imminent threat posed by Japanese troops stationed along its border and decided to intervene in an attempt to avoid this fate.
China began to mobilize troops at the end of 1592 was ready for an attack on Pyongyang (which had also fallen to the Japanese) at the beginning of 1593. The battle took place on January 8 and marked the beginning of the Japanese retreat. After a few more battles, the two sides reached a stalemate between Gaeseong and Seoul, which oddly enough also happens to be around the area that the peninsula is currently divided between North and South Korea.
Given the impending threat of the Chinese military, the near continual uprisings of the Korean population, and the disrupted supply chains caused by Admiral Yi's successes at sea, the Japanese had no choice but to negotiate with the Chinese and accept a cease-fire agreement in the spring of 1593. The Japanese began to withdraw their troops from the peninsula and by May of 1593 troops only remained in the Busan area. However, Hideyoshi was not happy with the terms and the negotiations eventually fell apart in 1596.
Japan Attacks Again
The Japanese once again arrived on the shores of Busan, this time in 1597. However, this assault was much less successful than the previous attempt made in 1592. The Koreans were much more prepared and China mobilized troops almost immediately. The Japanese were for the most part restricted to Gyeongsang province ( 경상도 ), which is the southeast portion of Korea, during their second invasion. They did hold Jeolla province ( 전라도, southwest part of Korea) for a short time, but quickly retreated back to their stronghold in Gyeongsang. Admiral Yi again disrupted Japanese plans and the death of Hideyoshi on September 18, 1598 brought about the withdrawal of Japanese troops from Korea.
Admiral Yi Sun-sin ( 이순신 ) is among the most venerated heroes in Korean history and for good reason. His record in naval battles was an amazing 23-0. He is also well known for his use of the turtle ship, which were quite simply beastly ships. They held close to thirty cannons and featured spikes extruding from the roof to prevent enemies from boarding. He participated in four campaigns during the first phase of the Japanese invasion. His success on the sea was one of primary factors that eventually forced Japan to retreat.
In the time between the two Japanese invasions Admiral Yi was actually the victim of a plot meant to undermine his authority. A Japanese spy provided a tip to a Korean general about a naval attack by Japan and the General commanded Admiral Yi to set up an ambush and fight the Japanese. However, Admiral Yi refused because he was apparently aware that the area was littered with sunken rocks that would threaten his ships and because he did not trust spies. As a result of his refusal to follow orders, Yi was arrested and sent to prison in Seoul.
The Japanese attacked following Yi's arrest and in a true testament to Yi's amazing seafaring ability, Joseon was soundly defeated in the ensuing naval battle and Yi's replacement was killed during the fight. Yi was released from prison and was put in charge of the 13 ships that had survived the previous battle. The following battle would go into the history books as one of the most lopsided victories in world history.
The Battle of Myeongnyang ( 명량대첩 ) took place on October 26, 1597 and pitted Yi's 13 ships against a Japanese fleet that consisted of 333 ships (granted only 133 were warships, but still). Yi began the battle by luring the Japanese into Myeongnyang Strait, which is an extremely difficult naval passage for ships to traverse and many of the ships were damaged will attempting to pass through it. Admiral Yi and his 13 ships were waiting to ambush the surviving ships at the end of the straight. 33 Japanese ships were destroyed and another 92 were damaged beyond repair, while the Koreans did not lose any ships and only lost a total of 10 men.
In what seems like a fitting end to the admiral's life, Yi died on December 16, 1598 during the final battle of the Imjin War. He was struck by a stray bullet as he pursued the Japanese.
Negotiations: Part Two
Negotiations were a difficult process for Korea. After all, they wanted Japanese troops and Chinese troops off of their land. Negotiations actually continued for 10 years after the end of the war, but eventually life returned to a certain degree of normalcy.
The end result of this war was absolutely devastating for Korea. The total number of casualties that resulted from the war is estimated around one million and the vast majority of those casualties were Koreans. The Japanese also laid waste to most of the land, which meant that Korea endured years of famine following the war. Numerous historical artifacts were also destroyed and very few important buildings survived the war.