Early Choson Period
Resistance Against Japanese
The founder-king T’aejo, as noted, distinguished himself in resistance against Japanese marauders. After the latter’s depredations had ceased, Korea opened three ports for trade with Japanese feudal lords, giving investiture to the Tsushima lord who had been engaged in lucrative trade with other ranking Japanese. The Japanese liaison officers staying at these ports caused trouble at times, however, and the amount of Korea’s grant was reduced.
After the assassination of Oda Nobunaga, who temporarily called a truce among Japan’s warring lords, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose to power in 1590. Hideyoshi’s problem was to find a way to weaken the powerful feudal lords of the western part of Japan. In this explosive domestic situation, he looked abroad and decided that an invasion of China would provide the outlet needed for a peaceful solution at home. When Korea rejected Hideyoshi’s request for aid in attacking China, he ordered his generals to invade Korea in 1592. The Japanese army, armed with matchlock guns with which Korean soldiers were not familiar, reached Seoul within two weeks. They had attempted to invade the granary province of Cholla-do, only to meet the strong resistance of the people led by General Kim Shi-min at Chinju. They then turned back towards Seoul.
King Sonjo and the royal princes fled to the northern provinces and appealed to the Ming Emperor for aid against the invaders. The Japanese generals squabbled among themselves, while Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin conducted a brilliant series of operations in the Korean Straits, destroying many Japanese ships. The ironclad Kobukson, (turtle ships) which Admiral Yi improved with plated armor resembling a turtle shell, protected the sailors and marines, and were more than a match for anything else afloat.
With the appearance of Ming contingents, the Japanese were forced to fight a combined Ming-Korean army. Cut off from supplies and reinforcements owing to Admiral Yi’s control of the sea, the Japanese were hard pressed. A Korean volunteer army organized in the southern provinces harassed them with guerrilla tactics, while disease and malnutrition took its toll. Peace negotiations were held between the Ming general and the Japanese, who had by then lost the will to fight and started to retreat, stalked by volunteer peasant forces and contingents of Buddhist monks.
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Peace negotiations dragged on for five years but proved fruitless, and Hideyoshi sent his army to Korea again in 1597. The invasion this time encompassed only Kyongsang-do and part of the Cholla-do provinces, as the invaders were harassed by the volunteer army.
The Japanese retreated and Hideyoshi’s death forced the evacuation of his forces. Admiral Yi, in his attempt to smash the Japanese retreat, was struck by a stray bullet and killed during a climactic naval battle. The war ended at long last, with grave impact upon Korea, Ming China, and Japan.
Impact of the War
The results of the Hideyoshi invasion included destruction of governmental records, cultural objects, archives, historical documents and works of art, devastation of land, decrease of population, and loss of artisans and technicians. Arable land amounted to only one third of the prewar acreage, and the resulting decrease of revenue necessitated additional taxation of less devastated provinces such as Kyonggi-do and Ch’ungch’ong-do. The government resorted to selling official titles and yangban status, and on one occasion held an examination for government service open to the bondsman class. The loss of artisans brought a decline in handiwork quality, as well as in manufactured goods such as pottery and book printing. The NeoConfucian norms and values were shaken, and the class distinctions which the yangban tried to uphold began to crumble.
The Japanese, on the other hand, achieved a peaceful, centralized feudal society under Hideyoshi’s successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Importation of the political philosophy of Neo-Confucianism and the study of medicinal materials and therapy developed in Korea helped Japanese scholars to make significant contributions to their society. The introduction of typography with movable metal type expedited book printing, and Korean artisans captured by the Japanese army developed ceramic and textile products. After the Tokugawa takeover, Japan wanted peaceful diplomatic relations with Korea in order to benefit further from the Korean version of Chinese culture.
For Ming China the results were catastrophic. The economic setback suffered in the campaign later led to the collapse of the dynasty.