Although the Ming army had retired to Pyongyang, the Japanese in Seoul were now surrounded on all sides by native Korean troops, guerrillas, and monk-soldiers, and were thus unable to venture into the surrounding countryside in anything but large, well-armed groups. Several companies of Korean government soldiers still remained to the north, forces under Commander in Chief Kim Myong-won at the Imjin River, General Yi Bin at Paju, and Generals Ko On-baek and Yi Si-on at Haeyu Pass. Twenty kilometers to the west at Chasong, a force of one thousand monk-soldiers attacked a Japanese unit and, at a cost of nearly half their number, succeeded in driving them back within the city walls. Two thousand monks under Yujong achieved similar results ten kilometers to the northeast at Surak-san, driving the Japanese garrison there back into Seoul and claiming the mountain for themselves. A third contingent of six hundred monks made an attack at Ichon in the southeast, again suffering heavy losses, but again driving the Japanese back into the capital.
And at Haengju to the west lay the biggest thorn of all: twenty-three hundred Koreans under Cholla Province Army Commander Kwon Yul, holed up in a wooden stockade on a bluff overlooking the Han River.
Kwon Yul was a fifty-five-year-old civil servant of middling rank from a family of note in Kyongsang Province. Before the war he had served, on Yu Song-nyong’s recommendation, as magistrate of Uiju on Korea’s border with China, and later as magistrate of Kwangju in the southwestern province of Cholla. Immediately following Hideyoshi’s invasion he raised troops in the Kwangju region and led them north in a failed attempt to halt the Japanese advance before it reached Seoul. He then returned south and participated in the defense of Cholla Province, which the sixth contingent of the Japanese army under Kobayakawa Takakage was threatening to overrun. Kwon distinguished himself by defeating Japanese units in two engagements, the Battles of Ungchi and Ichi, in the second week of August. Recognizing his ability, the government appointed him army commander of Cholla Province in the following month.
By this time Kwon had come to the conclusion that the Japanese were too skilled in warfare to be defeated on open ground, and that the Koreans should therefore fall back on their traditional strength of fighting from behind walls. He would make his first attempt at this in October of 1592 from a base at Toksan, a mountain redoubt two days’ march south of the capital, overlooking the main road from Pusan to Seoul. From an ancient Paekche dynasty fortress that they strengthened and enlarged, Kwon and his men attacked enemy foraging parties and small units passing along the road and generally proved troublesome enough that the Japanese high command in Seoul sent a company south to besiege the fortress. The effort, we are told, was soon abandoned. According to one report, Kwon fooled the Japanese into giving up and returning to Seoul by having a horse rubbed down with rice grains until its coat sparkled in the sun. To the Japanese watching in the distance it appeared that the animal had just been washed, a sign that the Koreans within had ample stores of water to withstand a lengthy siege.
Early in 1593 Kwon Yul led his men farther north in preparation for the anticipated allied attack on Seoul. Incorporating a unit of monk-soldiers under the priest Choyong into his ranks, he set to work strengthening a dilapidated fortress on a hill outside the village of Haengju on the north bank of the Han River ten kilometers west of the capital. It was a highly defensible position, protected at its rear by a steep drop-off down to the Han. If an attack came, it would have to be made uphill and from the north, straight into the Koreans’ concentrated fire.
With the retreat of the Ming army, Kwon Yul’s fortress at Haengju emerged as the greatest immediate threat to the Japanese in Seoul. On March 14 they decided to do something about it. Some hours before dawn, the west gate of the city was opened and a long line of troops filed out and turned toward Haengju, marching along the north bank of the Han to the accompaniment of drums and horns and gongs. The daimyo on horseback in the lead constituted an all-star cast from the Korean campaign. There was Konishi Yukinaga, leader of the first contingent that had spearheaded the invasion, recently back in Seoul after the retreat from Pyongyang. There were third contingent leader Kuroda Nagamasa, and Kobayakawa Takakage, hero of the Battle of Pyokje. There were Hideyoshi’s adopted son Ukita Hideie, the young supreme commander of all Japanese forces in Korea, and the veteran Ishida Mitsunari, one of the overseers sent from Nagoya to help him. Accompanying them were more than half the troops garrisoning Seoul, a total of thirty thousand men.
The twenty-three hundred Korean troops and monk-soldiers within Haengju fortress, crowded together with thousands of civilians who had fled their villages to seek shelter within the walls, watched the noisy approach of this enemy multitude with growing trepidation. When the Japanese arrived at the base of their hill in the soft light of dawn, the Koreans observed that each soldier had a red-and-white banner affixed to his back, and that many wore masks carved with fierce depictions of animals and monsters and ghosts. Panic was now hovering just beneath the surface, held in check by the calm authority of Commander Kwon Yul. As the Japanese busied themselves below with their pre-battle preparations, he ordered his men to have a meal. There would be no telling when they would have a chance to eat again.
The battle began shortly after dawn. The Japanese, so numerous that they could not all rush at the ramparts at once, divided into groups and prepared to take turns in the assault. Their strength must have seemed overwhelming to the Koreans. For once, however, the muskets of the Japanese were of only limited use, for in having to fire uphill they were unable to effectively target the defenders holed up within. Their lead balls simply flew in an arc over the fort and into the Han River beyond. The advantage was with the Koreans, firing down upon the attacking Japanese with arrows and stones and anything else that came to hand. They had a number of gunpowder weapons as well, including several large chongtong cannons and a rank of hwacha (fire carts), box-shaped devices built onto wagons that fired up to one hundred gunpowder-propelled arrows in a single devastating barrage. Alongside these more traditional weapons was an oddity that employed a spinning wheel mechanism to hurl a fusillade of stones. It was called the sucha sokpo, the “water wheel rock cannon.”
Konishi Yukinaga’s group led the Japanese assault. Kwon Yul waited until they were within range, then beat his commander’s drum three times to signal the attack. Every Korean weapon was fired at once, bows, chongtong, hwacha, and rock cannons, raking Konishi’s ranks and driving his men back. Ishida Mitsunari was the next to the attack. His force too was driven back, and Ishida himself was injured. Next up was Kuroda Nagamasa, the Christian commander of the third contingent, otherwise known by his baptismal name Damien. He had been thwarted once before by Koreans fighting behind walls, at the Battle of Yonan the previous year. This time he took a more cautious approach, positioning musketeers atop makeshift towers so that they could fire into the fortress while the rest of his force held back. A fierce exchange of fire ensued; then Kuroda’s men too were forced to retreat.
The Japanese had now attacked Haengju three times and had failed even to penetrate the fortress’s outer palisade of stakes. Young Ukita Hideie, determined to make a breakthrough in his, the fourth charge, managed to smash a hole in the obstacle and got near the inner wall. Then he was wounded and had to fall back, leaving a trail of casualties behind. The next unit to attack, Kikkawa Hiroie’s, poured through the gap Ukita’s forces had opened and was soon attacking Haengju’s inner wall, the last line of defense between the Japanese and Kwon Yul’s troops. The fighting now was at arm’s length, with masked warriors attempting to slash their way past the defenders lining the barricades, while the Koreans fought back with everything they had—swords, spears, arrows, stones, boiling water, even handfuls of ashes thrown into the attackers’ eyes. As the fighting reached its peak no sound came from Kwon Yul’s drum. The Korean commander had abandoned drumstick and tradition in favor of his sword and was now fighting alongside his men. At one point the Japanese heaped dried grass along the base of Haengju’s log walls and tried to set them ablaze. The Koreans doused the flames with water before they could take hold. In the seventh attack led by Kobayakawa Takakage, the Japanese knocked down some of the log pilings and opened a hole in the fortress’s inner wall. The Koreans managed to hold them back long enough for the logs to be repositioned.
As the afternoon wore on the Korean defenders grew exhausted and their supply of arrows dwindled dangerously low. The women within the fort are said to have gathered stones in their wide skirts to supply the men along the walls. This traditional type of skirt is still known as a Haengju chima (Haengju skirt) in remembrance of this day. But stones alone were not enough to repel the Japanese for long. Then, when all seemed lost, Korean naval commander Yi Bun arrived on the Han River at the rear of the fortress with two ships laden with ten thousand arrows. With these the defenders of Haengju were able to continue the fight until sundown, successfully repelling an eighth attack, then a ninth.
Finally, as the sun dipped below the horizon out beyond the Yellow Sea, the fighting petered out and did not resume. The Japanese had suffered too many casualties to continue. Their dead numbered into the many hundreds, and their wounded, including three important commanders, Ukita Hideie, Ishida Mitsunari, and Kikkawa Hiroie, were many times more. They had in fact been dealt a terrible defeat, the most serious loss on land so far at the hands of the Koreans. Throughout the evening the survivors gathered what bodies they could, heaped them into piles, and set them alight. Then they turned around and walked back to Seoul. One Japanese officer in the disheartened assembly would later liken the scene beside the Han River that day to the sanzu no kawa, the “river of hell.”
When they were gone, Kwon Yul and his men came out and recovered those bodies that the Japanese had been unable to retrieve, cut them into pieces, and hung them from the log palings of their fort. These grisly trophies were an indication of how much had changed for the Koreans since the beginning of the war, of how the previous ten months had transformed them from shell-shocked, indecisive “long sleeves” into bloodthirsty warriors, bent on revenge. The Japanese would not be able to hold their ground for long against such grim determination, not with their dwindling numbers and growing problems with supplies. Hemmed in by a foe of evidently growing strength, willing to endure enormous hardship and loss to drive them out, the withdrawal of the Japanese from Seoul became certain, with or without the intervention of the Ming Chinese.
Sooner or later, Hideyoshi’s troops would have to march south.
The Koreans brought with them a secret weapon. It was called the pigyok chincholloe (flying striking earthquake heaven thunder), translated by one writer as the “flying thunderbolt.” In the early hours of October 12, 1592, under the cover of darkness, Pak sent a group of soldiers up to the base of the walls of Kyongju where they set up and fired the weapon, hurling a mysterious ball of iron into the midst of the enemy camp. “It fell to earth,” a Japanese chronicler tells us, “and our soldiers gathered about it to look. Suddenly it exploded, emitting a noise that shook heaven and earth, and scattering bits of iron like pulverized stars. Those who were hit dropped dead on the spot. Others were knocked down as if by a powerful wind.” Only thirty-odd men were killed in the blast, but it so panicked Tagawa’s garrison that it abandoned the city and fled to Sosaengpo, leaving Kyongju and a large store of rice to the Koreans.
The pigyok chinchollae would be employed on other occasions in the Imjin War, notably at the First Battle of Chinju in November 1592, and at the Battle of Haengju in March of the following year. It was invented some time earlier in the reign of King Sonjo by Yi Chang-son, head of the government’s firearms department, probably as an adaptation of the catapult-fired pi li hu pao (heaven-shaking thunder) bomb previously developed in China and used against the Japanese in the failed Mongol invasion in 1274. Unlike the pi li hu pao, however, the pigok chincholloe was shot with gunpowder from a mortar, making it the world’s first mortar- or cannon-fired explosive shell. It was manufactured in various sizes, from a twenty-one-centimeter version fired from the Korean’s largest mortar, the daewangu, down to ten-centimeter models shot from the medium-sized chungwangu. The projectile itself was a hollow cast-iron sphere packed with gunpowder and pieces of shrapnel, with a delayed action fuse inserted through an opening in the top, consisting of a length of cord wound around a screw-like wooden core in turn inserted in a sleeve of bamboo. After the mortar was charged with gunpowder, the sphere was placed in the mouth, the end of the fuse protruding from its top was lit, and then the mortar was fired, hurling the device over a distance of five to six hundred paces. After it landed its fuse would continue to burn, spiraling down through the center of the sphere until it reached the base of the bamboo sleeve, ignited the gunpowder, and exploded the shell.
Samuel Hawley taught English in East Asia for many years. His books include Speed Duel, about the land speed rivalry in the 1960s between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons; I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, about one of Canada’s greatest yet least known sports heroes; the companion volumes America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom on George Foulk, America’s representative in Korea in the mid 1880s; and the novels Homeowner With a Gun and Bad Elephant Far Stream. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.
This is a great book on a war that few in the West know about. [Equally great, in my view, is Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598.” Compared to Turnball, Hawley delves a little deeper into the Korean perspective, while Turnball has a wealth of detail on the Japanese. But this is not a criticism of either; I read them both, Turnball first, then Hawley, and in so doing it reinforced many of the key points of the war.]