Yi Sun-sin

HistoryHero Portrait Yi Sun-sin.png

Where do you look for solutions to life's most insurmountable problems?

Yi Sun-sin found his inspiration in nature.

In 1592, hordes of Japanese samurai poured forth from ships into Korea. Then King Seonjo, who was as corrupt as they come, panicked and fled. He left his countrymen defenseless. In a matter of months, hundreds of thousands of Korean civilians were enslaved or killed. Most of the rest fled into the mountains and prayed for a miracle.

The future of their kingdom was in doubt. How could a small nation now bereft of leadership defeat a military superpower like Japan?

Enter Yi Sun-sin. He had been a Korean admiral. Ten years before, King Seonjo's ministers, who were as corrupt and he was, arrested Yi and fired him. But with patience, he'd earned his way back into the navy. By 1592, he'd achieved the rank of commander.

Yi was also an avid inventor. In fact, he was a genius at drawing lessons from nature to inform battle strategy.

For example, just two earlier, in 1590, he invented a new kind of ship: the Geobukseon. With its covered iron deck that resembled a shell, studded with spikes to deter boarders, the Geobukseon looked like a giant, impenetrable turtle. At the bow of the ship, Yi placed a dragon-shaped head that exhaled sulfur smoke, terrifying enemies that dared to sail too close.

When the Japanese fleet arrived in 1592, Yi gathered his handful of warships and elite Geobukseons and prepared to fight. The Japanese Samurai loved to charge enemy vessels and leap aboard them with katanas drawn. But they were puzzled when they saw the turtle ships. Bullets and swords bounced off the iron decks, while the smoke from the dragon’s heads disoriented the attackers. Over and over, the Japanese failed to crack the turtles' backs.

The Japanese sent dozens of fleets, one after another. But Yi sunk them all. Then in 1597, Yi was betrayed by the jealous King Seonjo once more. Accusing Yi of refusing an order, he had the brilliant admiral arrested and tortured. In Yi’s absence, the Korean navy was lured into a trap and wiped out by the Japanese. All the Geobukseon were lost.


Realizing he'd made a potentially fateful mistake, Seonjo recalled Yi to duty, begging him to save Korea a second time. Yi now only had 12 ships, none of them Geobukseon, against 330 enemy vessels. But when King Seonjo ordered Yi to retreat, he simply responded: “Your Highness, I still have 12 battleships.” Yi attacked. 

The odds seemed impossible, but Yi again harnessed nature to turn the odds to his advantage. He lured the Japanese into a narrow strait at just the right time. As they chased the Koreans the ocean tide rolled in, causing their warships to collide with into one another, sinking many. 

Yi won the battle but did not have long to enjoy his victory. A month later, he was struck by a stray bullet in a final battle against the Japanese. The man who just a few months before had faced execution was now celebrated as the hero and savior of all Korea.

Yi Sun-sin used the simple principles of nature to defeat what seemed like an invincible foe. His intelligence and courage often went unrewarded, but his genius and sacrifice kept the Korean people free.

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