Yi Sun-sin, the Man to Inspire Koreans in the 21st Century



The Great Admiral Yi Sun-sin is the man to inspire Koreans in the 21st century. If a foreigner was to come to Korea and ask any Korean on the street, "Who is your greatest hero in Korean history," one out of three would answer "Yi Sun-sin." He has been loved by men and women of all ages for many years in Korea. Few historical figures remain as influential in the life of Koreans today as Yi. How does he exist in the mind of Koreans today? Let me show you the different appearances of Yi that are integrated into Korean society.


1. Yi Sun-sin, the Everlasting Leader of the Korean People

A Statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin stands at the Gwanghwamun Intersection on Sejongno Boulevard in downtown Seoul. On the way to the Blue House where the Korean president resides and conducts state affairs, Yi stands as if he is still protecting the country. Every year there appears a strange scene in front of the statue. Marines, known as Korea’s elite troops, report to Yi on their discharge from the military service, and sing a martial song. A discharge ceremony is a ritual where soldiers make their final report to their superiors, after finishing their national defense duty. Present-day soldiers from throughout the country come to Gwanghwamun to give their discharge report to the statue of a person who died 500 years ago. Also, on the birthday of Yi Sun-sin many people from the government, private companies, and voluntary communities gather to clean the statue. Every year this scene draws the attention of the media and becomes the talk of the country. It is not too much to say that Koreans continue to be united under Yi’s leadership, even after so many years.

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2. Yi Sun-sin, the Most Respected Person in Korea of all time

Admiral Yi Sun-sin has been and continues to be one of the most respected people among Koreans of all ages and both genders. The weekly newsmagazine ‘Sisa Journal’ conducted a 2007 survey of 1,000 leaders from various areas of politics, business, culture and civil society, including government officials, corporate CEOs, legal professionals, and journalists, about the most honorable people that inspire Korea.

Yi was ranked as the second most respected person with 24.5 %, after King Sejong with 28.2%. Yi is not just the hero of influential opinion leaders. Yi also came in third place in a 2001 survey by the popular Korean broadcasting company SBS of the most respected people in Korean history among 4,500 average adults. Yi once again took third place in a survey by the Korean news agency ‘Yonhap News’ of the most respected people in Korean history among 1,500 adults over the age of 20. He is also one of the front-runners in online polls. He ranked in fourth place when the monthly newsmagazine ‘Monthly Chosun’ asked 15,000 Internet users for a month in January of 2002 for their opinions of the best Koreans.

Above all, Admiral Yi has continued to live in the hearts of Koreans across time. The biography of Yi Sun-sin was the most read biography among children in a 1982 survey conducted by the Samsung Life Insurance Company. Over twenty years later, the list of respected men has changed with time, yet biographies of Yi remain on bestseller lists among children and youth.


3. Yi Sun-sin, the Legendary Hero in novels, dramas and movies

imageAdmiral Yi Sun-sin has been brought back to life in numerous books, dramas, movies and commercials. ‘The Song of the Sword’, a novel about Yi written by Kim Hun, had sold over one million copies by December of 2007. This novel portrays Yi’s agony as a human being during the Imjin War. It won the Dong-In Literary Award, a prestigious award in the Korean literary world, in 2001, and was translated and distributed to other Asian and European countries. The author of the book said that he wished to suggest moral principles for leaders who are in positions of responsibility in history, and life philosophies for common individuals. This novel succeeded in moving Koreans to think of Yi’s agony and solutions in their own time of ordeal. Former Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun (reigned 2003-2008) referred to biographies of Yi as books that he often read when encountering his own political hardships, generating more public interest in Yi’s biography.

imageThe most decisive event to revive interest in Yi in the 21st century was the production of the drama, ‘The Immortal Yi Sun-sin’, which was broadcast in 2005 by KBS, Korea’s state-run broadcasting company. This drama was based on the novel ‘The Song of the Sword’. The drama registered a solid 30 percent rating, successfully appealing to the audience by showing his agony and frustration over obstacles and challenges as a human being, rather than just his heroic accomplishments that had been the focus of previous dramas about Yi. Additionally, anti-Japanese sentiment was rising due to Japan’s claim to the Dokdo Islet, the continued distortion of history in Japanese textbooks, and series of inflammatory remarks by high-profile Japanese right-wing politicians. Koreans watching the drama derived vicarious satisfaction from Yi’s victories over the Japanese in at least 23 battles. The success of the drama made the unknown actor Kim Myeong-Min who played Yi in the drama a national star, and the small town of Buan where the drama was located became a popular tourist destination.

imageA movie about Yi was soon produced, spurred by the popularity of the novel and the drama. In July of 2005, the UK magazine ‘The Times’ introduced the movie ‘Heaven’s Soldiers’ about Yi and contemporary South and North Koreans working together. The movie is about South and North Korean soldiers who accidentally go back in time and help a 28 year old Yi Sun-sin to protect Korea. The magazine quoted the movie poster which read, “Superman, Batman, get out of the way! General Yi Sun-sin will save us,” and detailed its story about a combined force of South and North Koreans going back to the 16th century and meeting Korea’s greatest hero, Yi Sun-sin. In many instances Admiral Yi has been resurrected in the life of Koreans much like the title of the drama ‘The Immortal Yi Sun-sin, through a bestselling novel, a beloved national drama, and a movie dreaming of a united Korea.



4. Yi Sun-sin, Role model of high-ranking officials and corporate CEOs

In January of 2008, a TV commercial was launched nationwide about Chung Ju-Yung, the deceased founder of Hyundai Group, growing his business into a global company. In 1970 he flew to London to find investors interested in helping him enter the shipbuilding industry. Initially, he had a difficult time attracting investors. On his last chance to secure an investor, he met with Charles Brooke Longbottom, the President of A&P Appledore Shipbuilders. However, President Longbottom refused any investment outright, saying that Korea had no financial ability to pay back money that was invested. Chung didn’t give up and took a 500 won bill out of his pocket. He showed Longbottom the side of the bill that has a picture of the Geobukseon battleship printed on it and said “Koreans are the people who invented this unique ship called the Geobukseon and defeated the Japanese in the 1500s … Korea’s shipbuilding technology is 300 years ahead of Britain’s.” This argument persuaded Mr. Longbottom and he lent money to Chung Ju-Yung to build ships. This story about the Geobukseon was the seed of a miracle 30 years later, in which Korea’s shipbuilding industry, beginning in the war-battered country after the Korean War, became number one in the world.

Chung is not the only successful Korean inspired by Yi. Many Korean CEOs find the courage to overcome their own challenges by reading Yi’s stories about defeating Japanese forces under overwhelmingly disadvantaged conditions. Jeong Un-Cheon, appointed the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Food in February of 2008, is a well-known CEO who admires Yi Sun-sin. He took Yi’s saying “Those who seek death shall live. Those who seek life shall die” as his motto. He said that he learned important lessons about the entrepreneurial spirit from Yi Sun-sin, such as Yi’s creation of unique value through the innovative management of personnel and battle strategies when Japan, with enormous human and financial resources, invaded Korea during the Imjin War. Jeong used the same wisdom and unyielding willpower of Yi to overcome the economic crisis Korea faced in the aftermath of the opening of the Korean agricultural market in the 1990s. He also wrote a book titled “Geobukseon-style Agriculture” to offer suggestions on how to utilize Yi’s spirit in the management of agriculture in the 21st century, causing a sensation among aspiring entrepreneurs. Finally, Jeong was brought into the government to lead the ministry. He now has the great responsibility of managing Korea’s 21st century agricultural policies under the rapidly changing environment of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Similarly, President Hwang Chang-Gyu of Samsung Electronics, a worldwide semiconductor company, has Yi’s saying “Those who seek death shall live. Those who seek life shall die” as his motto. With this saying as his business philosophy, he succeeded in making Korea’s semiconductor industry number one in the world. Also, KTF, Korea’s leading telecommunications company, teaches its high-ranking executives about Yi’s dauntless venture spirit. Additionally, the valuable characteristics of Yi’s spirit have been taught in many business management seminars for prospective CEOs to help them learn how to win a competition with a relatively poor resource base, especially when compared to China and Japan. There are even universities that offer Yi Sun-sin leadership courses to help build courage and confidence in students who are seeking jobs. In Korea, Yi’s leadership serves as a lighthouse to guide businessmen and university students in finding their way into the future.


5. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, Reborn as the Name of a Korean Battleship

imageBattleships are commonly named after a King, President, or war heroes in most countries such as the US and the UK. This practice is a widespread way to signify that the named ships are the most formidable battleships of the country. Korea is no exception. The Korean Navy uses the name of Korea’s greatest naval hero Admiral Yi Sun-sin for one of its destroyers, ships known as the fortresses of the sea. For the name of a battleship, no one has a greater reputation among Korean historical figures and national heroes than Yi. Also, Yi is still alive in the hearts of Korean Navy cadets who aspire to protect Korean seas in the 21st century by following the path laid by Yi 500 years ago. The Korea Naval Academy has taught its cadets about Yi’s spirit and leadership as a primary course, and has established a museum with the documentary records and relics of Yi in order to inform the general public about Yi’s life and accomplishments.


6. Nationwide Yi Sun-sin Festivals

imageMany festivals have been held throughout Korea, in Seoul, Chungcheong-do, Jeolla-do, and Gyeongsang-do, all to commemorate Admiral Yi Sun-sin. First, the Korean capital of Seoul, where Yi was born, is promoting an ambitious project to restore Yi’s birth house, a memorial hall, a museum, and the Chungmugong shrine (*Chungmugong: Yi’s posthumous title). It also holds events that float a smaller sized model of the Geobukseon battleship on both the Hangang River and the Chenggyecheon Stream. Many Seoul citizens gather at these events to share in the pride of living in the place of Yi’s birth.

In the city of Asan in the Chungcheongnam-do province, the Great Admiral Yi Sun-sin Festival is held every year. Designated as a cultural tourism festival by the Korean government, this annual festival had its 46th year in 2007. Various events are scheduled to provide visitors with a chance to experience Yi’s life. Such events include an essay contest for children, archery, horseback riding, and experience in military barracks. The Hyeonchungsa Shrine, built to honor Yi’s accomplishments, is also in this city. It displays many relics of Yi, including Yi’s war diary during the Imjin War called ‘Nanjung Ilgi’ (National Treasure No. 76). Over one million Koreans visit this shrine every year to learn about Yi’s heroic life.

The city of Yeosu in the Jeollanam-do province has held the Yeosu Geobukseon Festival, also known as the Jinnamje Memorial Festival, for the last 40 years. Yeosu is well known as the place where the Geobukseon battleship was constructed under the command of Yi. To celebrate this accomplishment, Yeosu citizens promote Yi’s life and the Geobukseon with many Geobukseon-related things to see for visitors. Also, the small town of Haenam in the same province holds the Great battle of Myeongnyang Festival to pay tribute to the naval triumph in the Myeongnyang Strait, where Admiral Yi defeated 133 Japanese ships with only a small fleet of 13 ships. In Haenam, the Usuyong Tourist Resort was established to commemorate Yi. The resort covers an area of about 200,000 square meters and encompasses an exhibition hall of the victory in Myeongnyang, a statue of Yi, and a monument inscribed with Yi’s sayings.

The Gyeongsangnam-do province holds several festivals, including the Great Battle of Hansan Festival in Tongyeong, the Great Battle of Danghangpo Festival in Goseong, the Okpo Sea Battle Festival in Geoje, the Victory of Noryang Festival in Namhae, and the Gunhang Festival in Jinhae. The Gunhang Festival, held annually to acknowledge Yi’s patriotism, is growing as a nationally popular festival. About two hundred thousand visitors come to Jinhae during the 10 days of the festival. Many different parts of Korea hold various festivals to commemorate Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s naval victories, accomplishments, and his birth. Through these cultural festivals, Yi’s spirit is instilled into the life of present-day Korea.


7. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the Immortal Hero of every Korean

Admiral Yi Sun-sin protected Korea against the invading forces of Japan by achieving tremendous victories during the Imjin War, despite a lack of military personnel, warships, weapons, and government support. However, this is not the only reason why Koreans still remember him as their national hero. Koreans keep him in their heart not because he is one of the world’s greatest naval commanders, never defeated in at least 23 battles under his command, but more importantly, because he devotedly loved the people and the community to which he belonged, and served them even at the cost of his own life. He showed the true spirit of transcending the fear of death to work for the people. His noble life provides a moral compass for the lives of today’s Koreans. Even today, 500 years after his death, Koreans everywhere still cherish his spirit, his statements, his brave accomplishments and the history he created. He guides Koreans to look to their future with bravery and a love for people. Admiral Yi Sun-sin, he was, is, and always will be the Immortal Hero of all Koreans.