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Admiral Yi Sun Sin and The Diary of Nan Jung

There are several well-known diaries from around the world that have made their words known to the world. They have become important largely due to their descriptions of the times they were written in and their insights into what life was like. Like Anne Frank’s Diary, it presented the life of a Jewish individual who lived during World War II. In South Korea, there is such a diary that many know of and have learned about in school; The Diary of Nan Jung (난중일기) which was written by Admiral Yi Sun Sin (이순신) –  a Korean naval commander during the Joseon dynasty. He is considered to be Korea’s greatest war hero and is renowned and remembered for his strategic war plans. His diary, whose detailed description of those times, has been a key part in recording Korea’s past and history.  

© Nanjung Ilgi: War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, 11.03.2019, Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea

The Diary of Nan Jung was written by Admiral Yi Sun Sin (이순신). Yi Sun Sin, who was a naval commander, is known primarily for his victories during the Imjin War (임진왜란) or the Japanese Invasion of Korea, in the Joseon Dynasty. Although he had no previous experience in naval training, he led Korea towards many victories and never lost a ship against an enemy during action whilst at the helm. According to historians, he is also considered to be one of the best naval commanders in history. Today, you can find several statues of him around Korea. However, the two most familiar ones are those located in Gwanghwamun, Seoul and Yongdusan Park, Busan. He is also well known for being the one to restore and put in use the “Turtle Ship” (거북선), which became a famous battleship whose origins are tied to Korea. It is called the “Turtle Ship” due to its form which most closely resembles a turtle. It holds eleven cannons on each side of the ship and has a head shaped like a dragon. Unlike other historic warships, it also has a closed top built with spikes which was used to prevent the enemy from getting on board. This ship proved to be effective during the war and helped Admiral Yi in his battles.

© Yi Sun Sin statue, inspiremekorea, 11.03.2019,

Although Admiral Yi left behind a great battleship, his diary proved to be one of the most important historical treasures in Korea and possibly throughout Eastern Asia as well. Consisting of 7 volumes, his recordings of the Imjin War (1592-1598) showed in great detail the events that unfolded on the battle field and throughout Korea. Many things were uncovered regarding what happened during those 6 years of war and how Korea resisted the Japanese. During the Imjin War, Toyotomi Hideyoshi initiated the invasion of Korea in 1592, however, the conflict ended for a brief time in 1596 leading to unsuccessful negotiations in pursuit of peace, thus re-initiating the conflict in 1597. Admiral Yi, at this time, proved himself to be a great naval commander as he would more often have been disadvantaged against the Japanese navy. He often found himself with a significantly lesser amount of ships than the Japanese fleet, yet would lead his men into conflict and inflict results thought beyond his means. His most famous battle was the “Battle of Myeongnyang” (명량대첩) where heand his men were confronted by 133 ships with only 31 of his own. (The number of Japanese ships is disputed amongst historians, and ranges between 120 to 330 ships.) In the end, he hadn’t lost a single ship and had defeated 31 Japanese ships instead. At a certain point during the war, however, he was stripped of his position, despite his victories, due to a Japanese double-agent who tricked both another general and King Seonjo into thinking that an attack from the Japanese fleet was imminent in a certain area. However, Admiral Yi did not follow King Seonjo’s orders as he knew the orders were meant to trick him, as he knew the location to be dangerous and notoriously difficult to navigate. Hence, King Seonjo imprisoned and tortured him for disregarding his orders. Later, Admiral Yi was set free and lowered to the position of an ordinary soldier; a humiliating demotion. At the time, honor was of great importance for one living in the Joseon era. However, he diligently served his country and fought without objection. Later, however, Yi’s successor, General Won Gyun had suffered a devastating lost in the Battle of Chilchonryang resulting in the king giving Yi back his title. Yi then proceeded to win other battles with his greatly weakened fleet.

© Painting of defense of Busanjin Fortress, Byeon Bak, 11.03.2019, wikimedia.org

Today, Korea holds Admiral Yi Sun Sin in great respect due to his strength, bravery, leadership, and loyalty to his country. His death came on December 16, 1598, when he was shot at the Battle of Noryang (노량해전), which was one of the last major battles during the war. His last words were this:

“We are at the height of battle. Do not announce my death.”

Even then, he thought only of his men as he did not want to discourage them with news of his death. He was also noted for his intelligence made evident in his strategic skills in battle.

In the Diary of Nan Jung, Admiral Yi also wrote down his feelings regarding then-present occurrences and even included poems. Some of his most well-known quotes include, “Don’t make a hasty movement. Be like a mountain. Move silently and cautiously,” and “Your Highness, I still have twelve battleships,” which was quoted from the time where he was handed the weakened fleet after being reinstated as the naval commander. Such notable extracts have made the Diary of Nan Jung not only a historical record but also a literary piece.

Most, if not all, Koreans know about Admiral Yi Sun Sin and his great service to the country of Korea. He helped protect his people at the toughest of times and in the face of great odds. The Diary of Nan Jung, a significant portrayal of Korea’s history, will remain to be one of Korea’s greatest treasures and an invaluable reference for historians around the world.

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