Japanese invasions of Korea

The Japanese Invasion of 1592–1598

Korea was to be forever changed by what happened in 1592. Again, it was events outside Korea—this time in Japan—that impacted Korea. The 16th century in Japan was a time of political turmoil and unend-ing warfare. When one warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98), was finally able to unify the island nation under his control, he looked for other lands to conquer.

The Japanese objective was not Korea, however, but China. Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent a note to Korea in 1591 asking for an “imperial road” to China through Korea. Ever loyal to “older brother” China, Choson Koreans were insulted by the request and reacted with outrage: How could this insignificant island kingdom dare to invade the great empire of China? More to the point, how could the island of “dwarfs”—the Korean pejorative for the Japanese—ever think that the Koreans would turn their backs on China? Still greater insults were about to be inflicted on the people of Korea.

In response to the letter asking for passage to China, the Korean court sent an embassy to Japan. Upon his return the ambassador reported that the Japanese threat was groundless and the Korean court need not worry about a possible invasion. The deputy ambassador, however, offered a dissenting opinion.

He reported that he had left the official delegation and looked around in Japan, had seen soldiers and their arms, and had concluded that the threat was credible. The king, choosing to accept the ambassador’s report and ignore the deputy ambassador’s warning, made no special preparations for the defense of the country.

It may not have made a difference. Korea probably could not have prepared for the invasion in time because, unlike the Koreans, the Japanese were experienced in warfare—Hideyoshi’s forces had just conquered the other warlords of Japan to unify the empire—and the Japanese had superior weaponry. Japanese contact with Europeans, which began in 1543, had led to the purchase and manufacture of muzzle-loading firearms. The Koreans had cannon and gunpowder, but they had not developed the smaller weapons that could be carried, hoisted to a shoulder, and fired.

In addition, the Japanese were highly trained. They had been at war for a century and knew warfare. The Koreans had been at peace for exactly 200 years—since the founding of the dynasty, which had been done with minimal warfare. Before that Korea had been at peace for an additional 100 years or so. Koreans had had border skirmishes with Jurchens in small bands and had fought Japanese pirate bands along the coast, but Choson Korea had virtually no combat experience. On bal-ance, Koreans were not prepared to fight the powerful Japanese army.

The Japanese landed a large force near Pusan on May 25, 1592, and quickly overwhelmed the minor resistance there. They then marched and fought their way to Seoul, arriving in less than three weeks. One could hardly walk that far in that time, let alone fight and conquer, but the Japanese did. They almost completely overwhelmed the Korean forces. The slaughter of Koreans continued for another seven years.

When the Japanese reached Seoul, the residents panicked; many fled, including the king. King Sonjo (r. 1567–1608), otherwise a popular and capable king, was jeered and pelted with debris as his royal entourage left for the Chinese border. Some outraged slaves burned government buildings ahead of the Japanese soldiers to destroy the records of their servile status.

The salvation for Korea came in the form of Chinese intervention on land and Korean naval success at sea. The Chinese court had debated whether they should intervene in Korea. There were clearly “hawks” and “doves” in the debate. The hawks argued that the Chinese had a tributary relationship and duty to go to Korea’s aid and that it was bet-ter to fight the enemy abroad than to be forced to fight on home soil (an argument not unlike that heard at various points in 20th-century America).

The doves argued that it was not their fight and judged that the Japanese, barbarians who had never posed a threat before, could not possibly be a threat to the great “Middle Kingdom.”The Chinese response, when it came, was strong and full: The Chinese sent both foot soldiers and ships. Together with the Korean forces that were able to regroup and fight for the homeland, they were able to stall the Japanese invasion by early 1593.