|Emperor Go-Yozei (left), Emperor Wanli and the standard|
of the King of Korea
|Japanese landing at Busan|
The Koreans tried to even the odds against them by launching a surprise night attack on the Japanese camp which was initially successful but which also exposed their position, allowing the Japanese to swing around and attack them from the rear. The escapade ended in chaos and as the Koreans retreated, the Japanese paid close attention to how they crossed the Taedong River, so they would know where to take their own forces across. When they made their advance on Pyongyang on July 20, 1592, they found that the King and remaining Korean forces had already retreated, leaving behind huge stockpiles of food and supplies. Meanwhile, the other Japanese divisions consolidated their hold on the Korean provinces, eliminating local resistance and establishing Japanese governors and administrators. Before the year was out, most of Korea had been conquered and the Japanese could look forward to their invasion of China, by way of the Jurchen territory, later known as Manchuria.
|Korean Turtle Ship|
By the end of 1592 the Koreans had lost their country and King Seonjo was at the northern border seriously contemplating simply handing his entire kingdom over to China if only they would come to his rescue. The Ming Emperor Wanli, for his part, was rather overwhelmed by the news and shocked that the Japanese, a people the Chinese had always despised and looked down upon, could have conquered Korea so quickly. There had been some local assistance but it was not until January of 1593 that Emperor Wanli dispatched a major army to invade Korea and push the Japanese out. The King of Siam, another tributary of China, offered to attack the Japanese home islands but the Ming court refused the offer, not wanting to complicate the situation. On January 5, 1592 a Ming army of over 40,000, including a Korean contingent, arrived to besiege the 18,000 Japanese warriors garrisoning Pyongyang. Using a massive artillery and rocket bombardment, the Chinese inflicted over a thousand casualties on the Japanese but had purposely neglected to completely encircle the city so as to allow the Japanese the chance to escape rather than fight to the death. Under cover of darkness, the Japanese finally withdrew and Pyongyang was retaken.
|Tachibana Muneshige, Japanese commander at|
the Battle of Byeokjegwan (1 of 3)
Unfortunately, each side thought the other was suing for peace and basically trying to surrender and this, naturally, was not conducive to ending the war. The Chinese thought that the Japanese had agreed to withdraw and submit again to the Ming Emperor as their overlord (Hideyoshi having previously stopped paying tribute to the court in Peking) while Hideyoshi thought that the Chinese were surrendering to him and demanded territorial concessions as well as a Ming princess to be married to the Japanese Emperor Go-Yozei. Neither was true and when each side refused the demands of the other, hostilities resumed after several years of back and forth between the two sides. However, with the resumption of hostilities, the overall strategy and goals of the war, at least for Japan, would be dramatically different than they had been originally. With the huge numbers of Chinese troops moving east, Hideyoshi realized that the conquest of the Ming Empire was hopeless, at least for the moment and so would instead focus on simply retaking and holding the Kingdom of Korea as a Japanese foothold on the Asian mainland, a tributary state and a possible base for future, more ambitious operations.
This invasion force, carried by a fleet of 200 ships, landed in southern Korea unopposed in 1597 and began taking control of Gyeongsang Province. The Ming Emperor Wanli gathered a relatively modest force by Chinese standards with naval support to send to Korea under the command of General Yang Hao, who would have a less than upstanding career. Along with his 75,000 Chinese troops, the Koreans would muster about 30,000 in four armies plus the naval forces. The great Admiral Yi Sun-sin was available but his success aroused jealously at court and a smear campaign of sorts was launched against him until he was dismissed by King Seonjo and replaced by Won Gyun. The new admiral immediately sought out the Japanese fleet and attacked them at the Battle of Chilcheollyang. The result was possibly the biggest and most decisive Japanese naval victory of the entire war. Won Gyun was totally defeated, was himself killed in the battle and the Korean flagship was captured. The Japanese won complete mastery of the area and were able to continue landing men and supplies for the invasion force unimpeded.
|The Battle of Myeongnyang|
|Attack on Ulsan castle|
This resulted in a prolonged period of stalemate and an ‘America in Vietnam’ type situation for Japan. Despite winning the major land battles, their loss at sea meant that supplying men and material for an offensive or even a large defensive force was simply impossible and Japanese forces began to be withdrawn from Korea. A renewed Sino-Korean offensive failed to achieve a major breakthrough but nonetheless kept up an unrelenting pressure on the Japanese whose logistics were extremely strained. At the Battle of Sacheon the Sino-Korean offensive was defeated and the Japanese again launched a successful counter-attack and likewise at the Siege of Suncheon a little under 14,000 Japanese troops under Konishi Yukinaga successfully repelled a Sino-Korean attack by 50,000 men with heavy losses, yet these victories did not change the overall strategic situation. The stalemate simply dragged on until September 18, 1598 when Lord Hideyoshi in Japan died. Everyone knew, despite his efforts to secure the succession of his son to his position, that all the daimyo would soon be fighting for power in Japan and so the ruling council ordered a total withdrawal from Korea while keeping the news of the death of Hideyoshi secret in order to preserve Japanese morale.
In retrospect, the Imjin War was extremely significant for the course of the history of northeast Asia and beyond. It weakened the Toyotomi clan of Hideyoshi and helped enable the Tokugawa in seizing power in Japan. It solidified the place of Korea as a vassal of China and reaffirmed prejudices against Japan in their regard that would prove disastrously mistaken over the course of history. Had the war gone differently, had Hideyoshi been satisfied in his ambition to conquer the Ming empire, India and control of the Silk Road, the entirety of Asian history would have been drastically changed. All sides came away feeling rather justified in their own sense of accomplishment. The Empire of the Great Ming had retained the Sino-centric status quo of the existing international order. The Koreans had expelled the invaders of their country after a long and bitter struggle and even the Japanese could boast of having dominated their enemies on the land and withdrawn from the conflict without suffering a major, decisive defeat on the battlefield. All of these sentiments would have an impact on how these countries developed in the centuries to come.