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|Revised Romanization||Won Gyun|
Won Gyun (Korean: 원균, hanja:元均 ; 1540–1597) was a Korean general and admiral during the Joseon Dynasty. He is best known for his campaigns against Japanese during Hideyoshi's Invasions of Korea. Won was a member of Wonju Won family, which was well known for its members' military accomplishments. He was born in 1540 near Pyeongtaek, and demonstrated his skill as warrior at a young age. He was qualified as a military officer, and was first assigned to the northern border to defend against the Jurchens, who frequently raided Korean villages. Won led many successful campaigns along with Yi Il and Yi Sun-sin against the Jurchens. After considerable accomplishments on the northern frontier, he was promoted to admiral in 1592 and sent to the southern coast of Gyeongsang Province to command the province's Western Fleet, along with Yi Sun-sin, who became admiral prior to Won and took command of Jeolla Province's Eastern Fleet. At the time, both Won and Yi were cavalry leaders who had no experience with naval warfare.
Upon passing the qualification exam, he was assigned to the northern border to defend against the Jurchens, who frequently raided Korean villages. Won led successful campaigns along with Yi Il and Yi Sun-sin against the Jurchens. He was promoted to admiral in 1592 and sent to the southern coast of Gyeongsang Province to command the province's Eastern Fleet, along with Yi Sun-sin, who became admiral prior to Won and took command of Jeolla Province's Western Fleet. At the time, both Won and Yi were cavalry leaders who had no experience with naval warfare.
Prior to the Japanese Invasion
At this time, Japan was united after a long period of internal warfare by a new leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi had become supreme ruler over most of Japan by killing many rivals to rise to power. Hideyoshi decided to begin an expansionist war against Japan's neighbors. Some Koreans realized that the threat from Japan was great, and they argued that the Joseon dynasty needed to prepare for future invasion from Japan as well as the existing Jurchen menace. However, the government was divided along factional lines, so that the officials could not reach a decision. Hideyoshi saw the chance to take Korea unprepared.
Service During the First Wave of Japanese Invasion
On April 13, 1592, the Japanese fleet under Kato Kiyomasa launched a sudden strike on the Eastern Fleet of Gyeongsang province, and disabled every ship under its control. The main army under Kato and Konishi Yukinaga landed on the Korean Peninsula the next day, and marched northward. Won, who was commander of the Eastern Fleet of Gyeongsang province, was also routed by the invading Japanese. It is worth noting that Won's predecessor was able to pass a fleet combat readiness inspection just one year prior to the war. With this able force, admiral Won may have had an opportunity to intercept and engage Japanese invading forces at sea, thus perhaps preventing if not delaying the Japanese incursion on Korean soil. However he decided not do act upon the naval intelligence regarding the Japanese incursion until the Japanese landing party established a beachhead and successfully laid siege upon the city of Busan. At this point, Won sank many of his ships in retreat to ensure they would not be captured by invading Japanese forces. With only 4 ships left under his command, Won called for help from Yi Sun-sin, who had prepared for war and raised a smaller and battle ready fleet. King Seonjo finally ordered both admirals to fight against the Japanese forces on May 2, 1592. Eventually, Won and Yi began their campaign two days later, along with Admiral Yi Eok Ki, the commander of the Eastern Fleet of Jeolla Province who later became the commander of the Western Fleet of the same Province following Admiral Yi Sun-sin's promotion.
On May 7, the Korean navy under Yi destroyed a Japanese fleet in the Battle of Okpo. Later Won was promoted to an army general, while Yi Sun-sin became naval chief of staff.
Plot to Remove Yi Sun-sin
In 1597, Japanese decided to stop all negotiations with the Koreans and Chinese Ming Dynasty, and planned a re-invasion of Korea. To do so, they plotted to remove Admiral Yi Sun-sin from his position. Japanese spies directed by Konishi Yukinaga spread word that Kato Kiyomasa was urging other Japanese to continue fighting and would soon be crossing the sea. King Seonjo ordered Admiral Yi to capture Kato, but Yi refused to do so, as he knew that the words were the fabrications of Japanese agents.
Seonjo was in fear of a possible coup d'état attempt by Yi or by his supporters, which was never plotted, but Seonjo convinced himself it could happen any day, since Yi refused to carry out his orders several times not to mention his fleet is the strongest combat force of all sides. Yi refused to carry out the orders purely due to tactical reasons, but the act of insubordination itself, no matter how justifiable they were, frightened the King beyond his breaking point. King Seonjo finally ordered the execution of Yi, but the royal court reluctantly yet successfully resisted the order and was able to lower the punishment to imprisonment and demotion. Yi was then placed under the command of Gwon Yul to recover from the wounds he sustained from the torture administered during the investigation of the charges brought against him. Seonjo then replaced Yi with Won Gyun as the naval chief of staff.
Won also knew the information was false, and did not advance toward Busan for the same tactical reasons Yi reported to the royal court prior to his removal from the post. Yi had been removed from his post for refusing orders to engage the Japanese. The government continued to trust the information and ordered Won to attack Japanese ships at Ungcheon. Won attacked the Japanese, who were mostly unarmed and protected under the cease-fire treaty signed to support the negotiation process which was about to be terminated but was still in effect, and defeated them. He lost one of his battleship and the captain during the attack. He did not advance anymore after receiving a letter of protest from the Japanese commander. Then Field Marshal Gwon Yul, who was also under heavy pressure from the king himself as well, recalled Won to his headquarters and once again ordered him to attack Busan. Won finally led Joseon Navy toward Busan, along with the famous admiral Yi Eok Ki, following orders despite tactical considerations.
The Japanese at first seemed to retreat, but it was actually a trap. The Japanese were already prepared to devastate the Joseon Navy prior to land invasion, and the number of Japanese ships was so great that most Koreans were already frightened, including Admiral Bae Seol. The Japanese fleet, commanded by famous naval commander Todo Takatora, advanced toward Won Gyun's fleets. Won knew that he would lose the battle, but had no choice but to face the enemy.
At the Battle of Chilchonryang, most of Joseon Navy's ships were destroyed, and Won was killed in action. Only the small detachment of twelve warships under the command of admiral Bae Seol, who refused to participate and fled the combat zone before the battle began, survived. Every other ships which participated in the combat were destroyed or disabled, along with almost all of Joseon navy line officers and many capable mid-level commanders.
The battle opened the route for Japanese to advance to Yellow Sea, and Todo set up the plan to attack Hanyang from both land and sea with Kato Kiyomasa and Konishi Yukinaga. However, Japan's hopes were crushed again by Yi Sun-sin's return at the Battle of Myeongnyang, which would decide the winner of the devastating war. Despite any historical controversy, both Won Gyun and Yi Sun-sin would receive commendations following their deaths.
Next to his military career, Won Kyun is perhaps best known for his personal faults, which included excessive alcohol consumption and attempts at adultery. In his War Diaries, Yi Sun-Sin recalls reports and rumors about "cruel deeds" committed by Won and even mentions an incident in which Won had unsuccessfully attempted to seduce the wife of one of his subordinates, calling him a "wicked man" and (at least partially) blaming him for his degradation (as derivable from the citation, "Won employs all means to entrap me").
Much controversy lingers in regards to Won Gyun as a military leader. Widely panned by scholars and historians, there is recent research to suggest that Won Gyun may have been excessively vilified during the Park Chung-Hee administration in order to elevate Yi Sun-sin by juxtaposition. In particular, Won Gyun's earlier successes against the Jurchen have been buried and there is an interest in providing a more objective view of Won Gyun's military career.
While fault exists for Won Gyun's mistakes as a naval officer, much of the blame of the troubles during that period lies in the factionalized incompetence of the Seonjo court. However, it is still hard to ignore his actions and lack of competency as a naval commander and blame the political instability and indecision of the Seonjo court for the result of the battle of Chilcheonryang. The battle led to the near complete annihilation of the entire Korean naval combat forces in a single engagement against the Japanese fleets which were simply unable to prevail against the Korean fleets in any of the previous engagements.
In popular culture
In the Korean drama TV series Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin, Won Gyun (played by Choi Jae-sung) is portrayed as a basically honorable man who is, however, very hot-tempered and stubbornly loyal to his king. In this depiction, Won and Yi Soon-Shin started their military careers as friends, but as navy commanders they begin to disagree about Yi's careful and well thought-of tactics, whereas Won is eager to face the Japanese face-to-face. The resulting carelessness results in the near-destruction of the Joseon fleet, but in the end Won acknowledges that Yi has been right all along, and he nobly sacrifices himself to secure the retreat of his remaining men.
- Yi Sun-sin, Nanjung Ilgi [The War Diary], eds. Ha Tae-hung and Sohn Pow-key. Seoul:Yonsei University Press. 1977.
- Sadler, A.L. “The Naval Campaign in the Korean War of Hideyoshi, 1592-1598.” In Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, ser. 2, vol. 14, June 1937, pp. 178–208.
- Underwood, Horace Horton. “Korean Boats and Ships.” In Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Seoul, vol. 23, pp. 1–89, 1934.
- Park, Yun-hee. Yi Sun-sin. Seoul: Hanjin. 1978.
- Yi Sun-sin, Nanjung Ilgi, pp. 266, 267-268.
- International Movie Data Base: Bulmyeolui Lee Soon-shin cast list. Retrieved 2012-04-18
- Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin (KBS 2004-2005), episode 92