Date: February 8-10, 1593
Location: Pyongyang, in present-day North Korea
1. Ming Dynasty Northern Army Commander: General Li Rusong
2. Samurai Armies of Japan Commanders: So Yoshitosi, Kato Kiyomasa, and Konishi Yukinaga
In the spring of 1592, the warlord of all Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, decided to invade Korea as a prelude to a direct attack on the vast Empire of the Ming Chinese. Hideyoshi saw himself as the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, and his confidence in his samurai armies, hardened by over a century of civil war, was unbounded. In the invasion, 150,000 samurai-led troops, well-armed with modern firearms, landed at Pusan and captured the city rapidly against the outnumbered and outgunned Korea defenders, who used archery, swords, and spears. By June, the Japanese armies had shattered the Korean army and captured Seoul, causing the Korean king to flee to the north and beg for aid from his powerful Ming protectors in China. The Ming regarded Korea as a tributary kingdom and pledged to defend it.
Meanwhile the Japanese pushed north of the Imjin River and captured Pyongyang. The Ming, alarmed at having the Japanese only 80 miles from their border, put together a force of 3,000 troops to try to recapture Pyongyang quickly, but they fell into a Japanese trap by the samurai generals Kato Kiyomasa and Konishi Yukinaga, who easily defeated them.
However, the Japanese offensive had outrun its supply lines. As the Japanese languished in their garrisons that fall and their fleets suffered at sea from attack by combined Korean-Ming fleets, the Ming conducted intensive preparations to retake Pyongyang. They decided to build up supplies of food, gather and build over 200 cannon, and then wait for the dead of winter to enable them to bring 75,000 men and the cannon on wagons over the frozen ground against the exposed Japanese outpost in northern Korea. The Japanese, on the other hand, had only very light cannon, more like large matchlock arquebuses, to oppose the Ming heavy artillery.
In command of the Ming army was Li Rusong, one of its most celebrated generals. A contemporary account describes him as follows: “Wearing a nine-dragon helmet and pure gold armour adorned with images of the sun and moon . . . of nine-foot stature . . . on his Red Rabbit horse and [holding] a Blue Dragon sword.” It was this hero who now advanced swiftly over the frozen landscape on Pyongyang. Li had just put down a mutiny in northern China, and many of his troops were veterans of that campaign. He arrived in early January with sweeping powers and instructions to use everything from diplomacy and peace talks prior to a winter counteroffensive. His army probably numbered no more than 50,000, of which 20,000 were Korean allies. The advance began the day after he arrived (January 11, 1593).
Li’s army was about half cavalry and half infantry, but his ace in the hole were his heavy cannon, which far exceeded in weight and number the light hand cannon that the Japanese used. Often the Japanese used a type of canister shot in these weapons, which made them even more limited in range (although lethal up close). The key advantage was the same one that the Japanese had over the Koreans-weapons range. The Chinese could pound the Japanese from afar with their heavier cannon, should they manage to get them to stand and fight or trap them in a city. Li knew his advantage and boasted, “Japanese weapons have a range of a few hundred paces while my great cannon have a range of five to six li [nearly two miles]. How can we not be victorious?” (Swope, 2003). Using diplomacy to lull the Japanese into complacency while moving with his cannon secured to wagons, Li rapidly approached Pyongyang. He attempted to surprise the Japanese further by asking for a meeting with envoys to work out the details of a peace treaty between the Ming and the Japanese. Li’s goal was to capture the envoys, and then, while Yukinaga awaited their return with the good news, the Ming army would debouch on Pyongyang and surround it on all sides with around 200 cannon. Ultimately, he wanted to achieve the complete annihilation of the two Japanese “armies” (but really divisions) garrisoning the city. The Japanese plan, once they realized they were under attack, was to rely on the superior skill and discipline of their superb infantry.
As it turned out, Li’s ambush did not succeed, and the Japanese that escaped sounded the alarm, but he still stole many marches on his foes. His vanguard, under his younger brother Li Rubo, managed to cut Yukinaga and a contingent of troops off from the walled city in their camp on a nearby hill. Yukinaga was rescued, however, by General So Yoshitosi, and he and his remaining troops were brought into the city. Li Rusong arrived the following day and surrounded the city, putting his Korean forces on the eastern side and disguising some of his men as Korean soldiers at the southwest corner. He then launched fire arrows and noxious smoke grenades into the city.
Yukinaga decided to attack the Ming and, if not defeat them, at least take his army away, avoiding being trapped inside the city. At dawn on February 8, his drums sounded a general attack. The fighting lasted almost three days, but in the end, the longer range of Li’s cannon, plus much hard fighting against the determined Japanese, decided the issue against the Japanese and their muskets, pikes, and disciplined infantry. The high point of the battle came when Yukinaga decided to break out against the pseudo “Korean” troops at the southwest corner of the city, and when these were revealed as Ming veterans, the Japanese troops lost their composure. Yukinaga was able to retreat via a different route, however, and according to some accounts, this was because Li offered him this choice to prevent further Chinese losses, having already suffered high casualties.
Those Japanese that escaped retreated in relatively good order, administering a sharp rebuff to a pursuing force as they moved south toward Yongson. This very modern battle saw high casualties on all sides, and even the Koreans fought well. Overall, casualties for the Japanese totaled nearly a third of their force, probably around 7,000, with many of those killed. On the Chinese side, the Ming admitted to 795 killed in action, and certainly the Korean numbers were as high or higher.
The results of the disaster were far reaching. The Japanese, who until now had maintained an aura of invincibility, at least on land, had been defeated by another land-based force. They would never meet the main Ming armies in a set piece battle again; instead, they resorted to raids, ambushes, or protracted sieges (and often they were the besieged). Their momentum was halted, and some observers compare this reversal of initiative to that which overtook the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway in 1942. However, they were not utterly defeated, and during his pursuit with about 3,000 cavalry, Li received a sharp check in an ambush about 90 miles north of Seoul, although the Japanese continued their retreat to that place after the engagement. Once in Seoul, they assessed their situation and then continued south after the Chinese and Koreans had destroyed a critical grain storage depot nearby.
This emphasizes the impact of Korean guerilla warfare and Korean naval victories on the fragile Japanese logistics situation. As the Korean king moved back to Pyongyang, and then Seoul, negotiations between the Ming and the Japanese began in earnest. By the spring of 1593, the Chinese had agreed to a truce with the Japanese that left the latter in a small pocket around Pusan. They did this without consulting their Korean allies.
Further Reading Kuehn, John T. A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014 (see esp. Chapter 5). Swope, Kenneth. “Turning the Tide: The Strategic and Psychological Significance of the Liberation of Pyongyang in 1593.” War and Society, 21(2) (October 2003): 1-26. Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai: A Military History. Trowbridge, UK: Japan Library, 1996