Disaster Upon Disaster
It was early morning of April thirteenth of the twenty-fifth year of Seonjo's reign. In Seoul, persons in positions of affluence and power which they had attained by intrigues and maneuvers were still deep in slumber, sweet yet fitful. Soon after sunrise, far off to the south of Pusan, the southern approaches to the peninsula, a black speck of cloud was seen hovering over the horizon. It was not spring rain. It was a tempest whereby God was to take stock of the achievement of the two centuries following the dynasty's founding. It was not atmospheric disturbance created by the sunshine and vaporized water of the Pacific Ocean. It was three hundred thousand Japanese swords tempered and shaped in crucibles heated by bellows worked by God himself-reinforced with guns, the darlings of western civilization, which came from across the seas.
To the astonished eyes of the people in Pusan the black speck soon turned out to be an armada of four hundred men-of-war that covered the whole expanse of waters off Pusan. In the sun they bristled, with streaming pennants and gleaming swords and spears. It was the first wave of the Hideyoshi invasion. But how was it that no one was aware of a national crisis of such proportions? The person responsible for coastal defense, Cheong Pal, was away hunting in Cheoryeong-do and returned only after he received the urgent call. This is a circumstance one will see only in Korean history. Without any planning in affairs of state how can there be national defense?
Sin Suk-chu, who had repeatedly visited Japan as envoy, had warned that Korea should strive for amicable relations with Japan. Yi I, foreseeing disaster, had recommended that an army of a hundred thousand be raised. The coming of the day of trial was plain to the knowledgeable. To those blinded by the peace that seemed to prevail, all warnings were just so many empty words. They went right on busying themselves with factionalism. Yu Seong-nyong, who was to bear the brunt of the trial as prime minister, had opposed Yi Is argument for a standing army on grounds of prevailing peace. He lived to regret that he had failed to heed Yi 1. Only later did he admire Yi I as a sage-statesman: "If we had listened to him, the country might not have gotten into such a mess."
Over the years Japan had indicated, through her envoys, a desire to gain passage across the peninsula to invade Ming China. Even though not fully prepared, Korea might at least have worked out some ad hoc measures. But foolish minds laughed it off when a Japanese envoy remarked, "We will come next year."
Hideyoshi's request was so persistent that even the unflappable Korean court decided to send two envoys to Japan to look into the situation. The two brought back contradictory reports. Hwang Yun-gil said, "Hideyoshi has a fierce look in his eyes, and seems to be full of talent and daring!" Kim Seong-il observed, "His eyes were like eyes of a rat, and he is not much to be feared!" Hwang was right. But everything was decided on partisan considerations. Since Kim Seong-il belonged to the ruling eastern faction, his view prevailed. Now we know why Korea was humiliated for eight years beginning in 1592. There was nothing that did not arise from such aberrant minds.
You will do well to hear a little more. Yu Seong-nyong, asked Kim Seong-il, "Your view is different from Hwang's. What would you do if the Japanese came?" Kim answered, "I can't swear that the Japanese will never come. I thought Hwang was exaggerating a little. I said what I said because he made it seem as if the Japanese were right on the heels of the envoys, and his view would unduly alarm the populace! Not that they did not know; they saw with their own eyes what was coming. But the comfort and power they enjoyed at the moment mattered more to them than the disaster that was coming tomorrow.
After he returned home from Japan Hwang Yun-gil quit drinking and womanizing, which he had greatly enjoyed. He spent a fortune buying good horses and devoted himself to practicing horsemanship and archery every day: "In the face of national disaster a man in government service cannot remain idle! "If things really turn out as Hwang said, then the western faction will take over," so thought Kim Seong-il That was the kind of thinking the ministers of the time were capable of; no poet or painter could have more aptly portrayed the psychology of a doomed nation than Kim's words. Creature comfort and ease of the moment were all they craved, at any price, much as a beggar would gladly bear all derision and contempt, mistreatment and humiliation for a lump of cold rice.
Cho Heon, sizing up the impending crisis, tried to submit a memorial to the king, in which he strongly recommended a clear-cut course of action to put an end to indecision and vacillation. Furious over the governor's refusal to forward the letter, he walked to the capital all the way from Okch`eon in Ch'ungch'eong-do province, and made a direct appeal to the king, but no one took him seriously. He was dismissed as insane. A few years later, he again appeared in Seoul, this time with an ax. He prostrated himself at the palace gate and refused to leave until he was heard or was executed with the ax. The result: he was banished to Kilchu in Hamgyeong-do province.
In the year before the invasion Cho Heon, heard that another envoy had come from Japan. Again he went to Seoul. He urged a decisive policy including the execution of the envoy. He was declared a shameless fellow and was again ignored. After three days, unable to bear his fury and frustration, he hit his head on the stone base of the palace gate, the tears flowed along with blood, but all he drew was general derision: "The silly fellow is tormenting himself! He went home, leaving one word of warning, "You will certainly remember what I said next year when you flee into the mountains" He practiced walking, and when people asked why, he replied, "It will do you good when the Japanese come! This was how it was: they covered their eyes with their hands and refused to see what was coming. While they were smugly enjoying a feeling of security, the dread storm was brewing.
Running into no resistance to speak of anywhere, the enemy pushed on until all eight provinces were overrun. Before the invaders there was screaming and crying, falling and being trampled on, slashing and being driven. Behind them was a stretch of wasteland reeking of blood, black with ashes. There was nothing surprising about their clean sweep for the invaders knew their geography well, having traveled around, fooling the people with the belief that they were interested in gaining passage to march into Ming China.
Within two weeks of their landing in Pusan, they took Seoul. The whole of the peninsula, except for Pyongyang and the northwestern portion, was overrun. The king fled to Uiju on the border. A string of envoys was seen rushing helter-skelter across the Yalu to the court of the Great Country with a plea to save the little country.
There is not much more to say even if you wanted to go into detail: defeat and humiliation, being robbed and trodden on, death. It was not Providence's intent to throw Korea off the stage of history. Accordingly, an escape route was provided. Admiral Yi Sun-sin was stationed to guard the coasts. Had it not been for this escape route, the Koreans bearing the burden of history would have simply vanished. The enemy troops, who had the run of the country for as long as eight years, finally had to withdraw without glory or gains to speak of--all because they could not secure sea lanes. It was Admiral Yi Sun-sin who blocked their life-line. Some admire him for upholding Koreds pride. In fact, even those who despise us grudgingly acknowledge that "Korea too had a hero.' Others praise him for his invention of the first ironclad boat in the world, the remarkable vessel known as the "turtle boat! Still others esteem his lofty character. Indeed he carried in him the seed of the real Korean. A filial son, a man of high principle, staunch loyalty and unwavering probity, he put the interest of the public before his own. During his seven years of war duty he is said to have stayed away from women and treated people as kindly as himself. But that is not all.
I cannot hold back my tears when I think of him for I do believe that he was one sent by God. God made use of this great soul to save this people from doom. He was not a lotus seed that landed on the filth by chance but one that grew from the still living roots beneath the filth of partisan 1 quarrel. Through him was rescued not just the national prestige but the very mission of the nation. Through him was brought out not only the nation's ability and intellect but also its surviving conscience. It is his end- ing, in particular, that goes to strengthen my belief that he was one sent by God. Thanks to him the Koreans did not totally vanish in the earlier years of the war. Yet with the first lull how did the court reward him? What the court gave him was a rope to be tied with, torture, and a charge of treason. He returned to battle. At the end of the war if he had returned victori- ous, his destiny would probably have been exile and execution. That was what God could not permit. Therefore, when the national salvation had been secured, he was called away by God in the middle of a battle, his favorite sword in hand, inscribed on which was: "Herewith I swear to heaven that I will make the hills and rivers reverberate"
By special dispensation of Providence the nation survived the war, but it left the country waste and bare. The casualties were beyond count, the economy was in shambles. More misery was visited on the nation. A bad crop and epidemics followed. Many had to abandon their homes in search of shelter and food as they roamed
Edible roots and the inner skin of tree branches were soon exhausted. People turned to out-and-out cannibalism. In Seoul the corpses were thrown outside the city gate on the southeast, and the pile reached even higher than the gate so that it took more than a year to remove them. In the summer of the third year of the war, it is said that an ox was sold for only three mal of rice (one mal being equal to about two pecks), a bolt of fine cloth for barely two to three toe of millet (one toe is about three pints), and precious metals had no buyers.
By the second year of the war the national treasury ran dry. Government offices were put on open sale. The third rank of office, for instance, was sold for one hundred som (one som is about five bushels) of rice. The prices were soon lowered by three fourths, yet there were no takers. Added to enemy pillage, the reinforcements from Ming, who were supposed to help Korea, turned to seizing property from the population so that cattle, pigs, dogs and chickens were wiped out. Not even what the farmers needed to carry on farming was spared. When a drunken Ming- soldier vomited people came scrambling for undigested lumps, the weaker ones ing for missing their share. Was it a world of human beings? Or was it I? Let the reader remember that we survived this veritable hell, that we were the children of the survivors, who could not die even if they wanted to.
As expected, the first reaction came from the common people, always the last resort on which one can fall back. When the ministers themselves panicked, some of the people began campaigns to save the country. They organized volunteers. They fought with bare hands. No spectacular feat could have been expected of these volunteers. just as a worm that is stepped on wiggles, or a bee that is molested will sting, they demonstrated that they were alive and wanted to live on.
Distracted by the good name of "a land of ceremony and decorum.' the populace had been languishing for hundreds of years under the burden of keeping up the fiction and commitment of petty principles. Demoralized though they were, they were roused like an invalid struggling back toward consciousness, and they cried out.
Kwak Chae-u , styling himself a "commander in red descended from the sky," stripped his wife and children and sold their clothes to recruit soldiers. Ko Kyong-myong and his two sons fell resisting the enemy. Kim Ch'eon-il and his son alone defended the town of Chinju until the end, when father and son threw themselves into the sea. Cho Heon, referred to earlier, defended Kfimsan together with seven hundred volunteers until all their weapons were exhausted. They finally charged against the enemy swords and spears, and died to a man. These are some of the many volunteer-heroes, unnamed and unsung. Theirs was the outcry of the multitude. They stand out like rocks jutting forth from the sea, waves dashing and breaking against them. They are rocks revealing an active volcanic strain running deep under the turmoil that swept through society.
While the populace showed signs of waking up, the rulers and leaders of the nation, inept and factional as ever, were still having their nightmares. Many commoners lost their lives. The national treasury went bankrupt. The bulk of archives and works of art was lost. Yet one thing they did not lose, factionalism. Is it not an ironic twist of fate that factionalism survived when the very meaning of suffering was to sweep it away? A sordid sight it was as they tried to settle old scores by blaming their rivals for mismanagement. As they huddled together in a corner of the land, they went on pulling down any of their opposite numbers who distinguished themselves, hoping to hold the ground for their own faction. This is what brought King Seonjo into agony, when he wrote:
On this day of turmoil,
Who will be our Li or Kuo of old?11
As we flee the capital
With our great resolve to return.
For that we depend on you.
The moon over the border hills,
The breeze across the Yalu River
All they do is break our hearts.
After today's shame will you still
Debate east faction against west faction?
The courtiers seem to have taken the king's intention the wrong way. The moment they came back from Uiju barely alive, their fighting grew even more virulent, more serious. They could not be serious or profound in religion or thought, but they were serious and profound in prosecuting their feud. When one faction wanted to find fault with the rival faction, it dug for a flaw leaving no stone unturned. No person living or dead was spared, no event recent or past was overlooked. In the process, the eastern faction split further into the northern and southern groups. The western faction spawned two subgroups, "seniors" and "juniors, " Then the northern faction went on to split further, and they were all interlocked in strife.
Disenchanted with the postwar administration, Kwak Chae-u, who had led volunteers during the war, submitted a serious warning to the throne but it was no use: "You keep a cat to catch the mice, and now that the foreign mice are gone I too will go. " He gave up his post in government, turned vegetarian and renounced the world. Another man of unusual ability and strength, Kim Tong-nyong, never had a chance to serve the country. In addition to wearing a long sword, he wielded a one hundred twenty-five pound iron rod in each hand but to no purpose. Implicated in a trumped-up treason case, he was beaten to death. This, too, was the consequence of factional feuding.
When there appeared a man of ability or talent even a little above the ordinary, those in power sought a pretext, any pretext, to get rid of him, for they were afraid he might displace them someday. There was a shortage of able persons as a consequence, which in turn served to sap the national strength more and more. The last years of King Seonjo were unhappy ones because of a partisan dispute over the selection of the crown prince. The court during Prince Kwanghae's time was again riddled with tragedy after tragedy, purge after purge, until he himself was deposed.
So a movement of awakening that was about to rise from the lower sses of society was choked off by the old sickness and the wheel of his rolled backward.
What history required of the Koreans in the war of the Japanese inva- was not to defeat the invaders. Korea was in no position to defeat the ck Japanese army, seasoned in battle for centuries during the warring period of Japan and equipped with muskets from the West. It was ex pected of the Koreans that they would endure and survive the war and its afflictions rather than destroy the enemy and its weapons. The experience 'Was to purifv and deepen the national spirit through fire and blood. It was to turn Korea way from the path of iniquity which had brought on the national tribulation. The test was not only to try Koreans' bravery but also their intellect, not just their strategy but also their wisdom. Korea failed the test.
The Imjinnok, a memoir of the war years, was written; the priest Sarnyong-dang successfully commanded monk-soldiers in a number of engagements with the Japanese troops. These deeds testify to the awareness of the war on the part of the commoners. But this awareness never developed beyond a surge of emotional upheaval into an effective campaign for restoration. God, persistent in exacting to the last penny the price of righteousness, continued demanding until the right answer was given. Thus, only forty years after the Japanese withdrew, Nurhachi, the chieftain of Manchurian tribes who was to found the Ching dynasty, was sent to deliver a second blow to Korea before her wounds had hardly enough time to heal.
In the meantime Korea had had time to review what had happened. The political situation in eastern Asia was again unsettled so that an awakened Korea could have taken another leap. Apart from whether Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a real hero, he was undoubtedly given a special task of history. He was one such as occasionally appears in history to do a cleaning job. Rising from the ranks he became a soldier of fortune who knew how to ride the oncoming tide. Faced with death one morning, he realized the total collapse of his life work. He composed a poem:
A drop of dew on a blade I came.
Like a drop of dew I am about to go.
Everything that happened in the capital
Now seems like a dream within a dream.
He was destined to be like Alexander, Genghis Khan, or Napoleon. He was like Stalin of yesterday or perhaps Mao Tse-tung. In any event, what seemed to him as empty as a dream within a dream was a task whose place in history was vital: to clear away old things for a new age. Hideyoshi prepared the way for three centuries of peace in the Tokugawa period of Japan and for setting the stage in Manchuria by delivering a serious blow to Ming China.
At this time, Japan was about to abandon her passive posture of accepting inflowing culture from the continent as she had done over the millennia in favor of a more assertive stand. What followed was only inevitable: the Sino-Japanese war, the Russo-Japanese war, the Manchurian Incident, the war against China and then the seizure of China. In this light, it may at first seem odd that the Tokugawa shogunate should have taken the course of beating swords into plowshares and closing off communications with western nations. Nothing strange about it if you recall that this policy was meant to foster the national strength for historic activities at a later date. For Korea, if she had any sense of history at all, the peaceful posture of Tokugawa Japan should not have been cause for smug inaction. Ming had never had full control over Manchuria, and had mollified the tribal chieftains there. As Ming's strength was further depleted through her troop commitments in Korea during the Hideyoshi invasion, she virtually abandoned Manchuria.
Opportunity again beckoned to Korea. It was yet another chance to rally the nation by returning to Manchuria, where Korea's ancestors had toiled, shed their blood and been buried, if they had learned their lesson from the invasion. Never did it dawn on them to do so. Instead they kept sitting on their hands. It was a matter of great regret for later generations.
History never waits for the lazy, and it is given only to the daring to pick the fruit of history in time. The bold Manchurians took away the fruit which the Koreans failed to pick. With Ming's influence on Manchuria declining, the chieftain Nurhachi in the sixteenth year of Sonjo subdued a number of Juchen tribes in the name of avenging his ancestors. He began to harbor designs on Ming China. When the Japanese army invaded Korea, Nurhachi sent an envoy to Korea offering help; he was heeding the call of the times. How did Korea react? At the sight of these Manchurians on the move Korea should have realized the situation beyond the peninsula. But Korea politely refused the offer and soon forgot all about it. Why would Nurhachi offer help? The Koreans certainly would have known the Juchen interest in Korean territory, and probably they were aware of this, as can be seen from the way they turned down the offer. But why did the Koreans not give any further thought to the event? Did they hope that refusing Nurhachi's aid would take care of the matter once and for all? The psychology of Korean statesmen is really hard to understand.
In the meantime, Nurhachi went relentlessly ahead with his plans until he openly challenged Ming China itself. In the eighth year of Prince Kwanghae's reign, war broke out that was to decide who would rule China: Ming, the great country before which Korea stood in awe, or the Juchen, whom Korea had despised as so many beasts. It was too late Korea. Still, if Korea was willing she could have had a chance of at le fishing in troubled waters; she could have gained some say in matters relating to Manchuria. Ming asked Korea for support, and Korea owed support to Ming for her aid in the Japanese war. Why not take an independent course of action? No courage. A puny twenty thousand man army was sent, a pathetic, passive policy. The two commanders, Kang Hong-nip and Kim Kyeong-seo, happened to be incompetent as well, with the result that the Korean army was that much easier to be used. Wavering its decision as to which would be more beneficial-to side with Ming or with Ch'ing-was all the court did, mindless and corrupt as ever.
History not only never waits for the lazy, it seeks vengeance against the lazy. A man once said, "If you fail to take what heaven offers, you will be punished " A bungled opportunity brings punishment. This is the law of history. The ancestral land sent out messages that it wished to be restored. The signs of the time proffered opportunity as a gift. The price of ignoring history's goodwill must be paid. The day of vengeance arrived swiftly.
In the fourth year of Injo, the year following his ascension to the throne of Ching, Nurhachi's son sent into Korea an expedition of thirty thousand men, ostensibly to punish her for collusion with Ming in her attack on Ch'ing. Major towns like Uiju, Kwaksan, Cheongju, Anju on down from the border fell one after another until the king fled to the island of Kanghwa. Soon Pyongyang fell and the enemy rushed onto the island The king was forced to surrender, and peace was made by his agreeing to enter into an older-younger brother relationship and to send to Ch'ing member of the royal family as hostage. The Koreans tasted what it was like to live under the despised northern barbarians.
The habit of makeshift died hard. It took no special intellect to realize that such half-measures could not spell lasting peace. But the leaders of this nation were still dreaming. General Im Kyeong-eop hurried to Kanghwa to answer the call of distress, only to learn that peace had been agreed to. As he moved his troops back, he said, "If only the court provided me with forty thousand men I could defeat the northern horde and wash my sword in the waters of the Yalu." No one showed any sign of response. Only on the recommendations of Min Seong-hwi, governor of P'yongan-do, were several fortresses built near the border, with General Im appointed mayor of Uiju concurrently in charge of border defense. To his request for twenty thousand men to secure the boundary, the answer was: "Peace has been regained and there can be no further occasion for conflict nor is there any need to fear any more." The cowards at court were afraid that further reinforcements might strengthen the general's position even more. It was not a foreign enemy that they feared but a man of unusual caliber and ability at home. When a foreign country becomes stronger, that, in their thinking, should be of no concern even if they are defeated by it, for there is always a way out-submitting to being its dependency. Forfeiting sovereignty was no serious matter. The only concern was that there might appear some great soul of righteousness who would take their power away from them. Hence, they refused to provide a large force.
Ten years passed. Preparations complete, ClYing set itself up as an empire, and the emperor changed the "brotherly" relation to that of sovereign-subject and ordered payment of tribute. Korea refused. Ch'ing responded by throwing in an army of a hundred thousand men under the personal command of the emperor in the fourteenth year of Injo. It should have been expected, yet an unprepared court was taken aback. The Ch'ing emperor bypassed Uiju, fully fortified and amply provisioned, and within ten days the Chinese reached Seoul. General Im got word of the invasion belatedly, but what could a general possibly do without an army?
The king had sent his household ahead of him to the island of Kanghwa and, as he himself was getting ready to flee, he was surrounded by the enemy. He managed to retreat into the fortress of Namhan, where the court was divided between the party for war and the party for peace. No sooner had a surrender document been prepared than it was torn up by the other party. Another was drafted only to be torn up again. This lasted for forty days, both king and ministers in tears. By then they ran out of food, strength and ideas. At the word that the royal family had been taken prisoner, the king agreed to capitulate. A platform was built at Samjeondo and the king had to prostrate himself and kowtow, according to Juchen custom, before those who had thus far been held in utter contempt. He had to suffer the humiliation and agony of handing over the principals of the war party who remained loyal to him. This was history's vengeance. 114 Chapter VII was: "Peace has been regained and there can be no further occasion for conflict nor is there any need to fear any more. " The cowards at court were afraid that further reinforcements might strengthen the general's position even more. It was not a foreign enemy that they feared but a man of unusual caliber and ability at home. When a foreign country becomes stronger, that, in their thinking, should be of no concern even if they are defeated by it, for there is always a way out-submitting to being its dependency. Forfeiting sovereignty was no serious matter. The only concern was that there might appear some great soul of righteousness who would take their power away from them. Hence, they refused to provide a la e force.
Just as you cannot leave Admiral Yi Sun-sin out of any discussion of the Hideyoshi invasion, so you have to focus on General Im Kyeong-eop in talking of the Manchu invasion of 1637 Both persons were chosen by God to represent the meaning of their respective times.
Im Kyeong-eop was born on November second in the twenty-seventh year of Seonjo`s reign in the village of Talch'eon near Chungju in Chungch'eong-do. He was born a mere three years after General Sin Ip went down in defeat in desperate battle while trying to stem the on-rushing enemy horde at T'angeumdae near Ch'ungju. The hopes of a bewildered nation were placed in him. It was in the midst of the sorrow and anger over that ill-fated action that General Im Kyeong-eop grew up.
Im was a born rebel. At nine when he was reading the writings of the ,Chinese general, Hsiang U (Hangu), the line jumped up at him: "All the learning you should need is to be able to write your own name. Teach me the art of dealing with a ten-thousand-man army." Im Kyeong-eop heartily agreeing, commented that there was a real man. Also revealing his character was his comment: "I was born with the essence of heaven and earth, and as a man, not a woman. Is it not a matter of regret that I am destined to spend the rest of my life in this little land without any hope of giving my talent full play?"
Small of stature yet knowing no fear, he was resourceful and circumspect, gifted in speech, and above all, staunch and unwavering in his sense of loyalty. He entered on a military career at the age of twenty-seven and soon distinguished himself by his unusual intelligence and firm character. When the situation became pressing in Manchuria, he was chosen by consensus for the post of governor of Uiju as the only man capable of securing the border. When others were too confused to see straight, he alone saw disaster coming and went on building fortresses and laying in provisions, so that Emperor Taitsung of Clying, as we have seen, gave him a wide berth. From many a story told of how Im Kyeong-eop and Taitsung spied on each other, we know that even Taitsung recognized Im Kyeong'eop as a man to be feared.
But a person of such caliber whom the enemy emperor held in deference was not appreciated by people of his own country. His battle plan was not accepted. A mere two months before the invasion, his request for a twenty thousand man reinforcement was granted, only to be reversed because of a ridiculous recommendation by a young nobody. The argument was, "Such a force cannot be put at the disposal of a general in charge of border security." At first General Im remarked, "With my extra twenty thousand men I have nothing to fear though the enemy come" Then he stamped his feet in frustration at the news that the reinforcement order was countermanded. When later the enemy had crossed over, General Im asked for a mere five thousand troops. He was certain that he could cope with the situation by assaulting Shenyang in Manchuria at little or no cost to his troops. No one had the courage to take him up on his word.
Even after the Manchu invasion was over, General Im sought a way to make up for the lost war by secretly approaching Ming, but without success. At that time Ch'ing was about to attack Ming and demanded that Korea commit its share of troops. General Im lost no time advancing his troops, and attempted on the battlefield to establish contact with the Ming army to persuade them to turn on the Ch'ing, but the plan was discovered. When Ching demanded the surrender of General Im he voluntarily gave himself up. He escaped on the way and, crossing the Yellow Sea in a small boat, reached the Shantung peninsula, where he tried to prevail upon the Ming court. The court was no longer what it had been. The Chinese general to whom he addressed himself was so inept that he defected to Ching's side taking General Im along as prisoner. While General Im languished in prison in Shenyang for a time, his unbending sense of justice and fervent loyalty moved the enemy, who allowed him to return home. T'aitsung of Ch'ing had character enough to realize that treating a loyal subject of the enemy well is to treat one's own loyal subject properly. He saw the policy advantage in gaining the goodwill of another nation by sparing the prisoner whose death would bring no immediate benefit.
But what did his own country provide for him, the country about which his concern never knew rest, which he had never forsaken even in moments of his worst suffering? Once he crossed back over to Uiju, the welcoming crowds with tears in their eyes rushed out to surround him. It was the same at every village he passed through on his way south, more welcome and praise. But torture awaited him when he got back to Seoul. A fellow by the name of Kim Cha-jom, who out of jealousy had attempted to harm the general at every step of the way, decided to finish him off once and for all. Kim framed him with involvement in a case of treason. He was put to torture and died under the beatings. He was fifty-three. "How can you kill me when the situation has yet to be settled?" was his parting lament.
King Injo knew that General Im was innocent and wanted to save him. But when he sounded out his ministers, none agreed with him. The king was weak and ineffectual by nature so he failed to press his point. While temporizing, word reached him that General Im had died.
"Kyeong-eop is dead , " lamented the king. "No, I don't believe it. It can't be. I was about to declare him innocent. Is it true that he died? How is it he collapsed so soon when he was strong and sturdy? He had courage. He was so capable and has done a great deal. What a shame to die like that, just on someone's say-so. It was not my intention to have him die. Oh, what shame that you should have died so soon. Oh, what a pity!" As the news spread, the whole nation cried for shame: "What will happen to the country now that our general has been done in?"
Obviously, things could not be made straight for the country by putting Im Kyeong-eop out of the way. Without him there could not be any hope of finding a solution to the tumultuous state of affairs, yet he was no more. No point hating Kim Cha-jom, for he too was to meet his death for his sin. To be truthful, it is not he that killed the general. It is the nation as a whole that caused his death. Was the nation perhaps intent on destroying itself? With his talent and valor, with his justice and loyalty, it was no accident that he should have emerged at the time he did, Why is it then that he met his death is such futility?
God made him go through fire and smoke amidst cries and wails, groomed him for the part of settling an unsettled situation and saving the country, only to take him away. What was God's intent in taking him away like this, particularly when He had hurt the nation's conscience beyond endurance, put it to ' shame to the limits? Why did He not let him stay among his people who clamored for him? The answer is simple: God meant Korea to endure suffering to the end.
General Im Kyeong-eop makes an interesting comparison with Admiral Yi Sun-sin. General Im guarded the northern border, Admiral Yi the southern sea. Both are comparable in capacity and courage, in superior intelligence and clear judgment, in their character symbolizing fidelity and justice. The two could in fact have exchanged their roles with equal competence. Yet they were destined to go different ways. Both were devoted, body and soul, to the good of the country and its people. While Admiral Yi was able to work out his strategy and carried it through to save the nation, every effort of General Im's went awry, and the harder he tried, the worse things turned out until he died, with his dreams thwarted. Was he less capable? Were the foes they confronted different? No. Rather it was because the times were different and bore different meanings.
General Im's strategy of making a dash for Shenyang, as we review it now, was a move well worth trying. His scheme, backed with courage, was sufficient to strike fear into Taitsung, himself not one easily intimidated. Had his times allowed him an army he may well have washed his cherished sword in the waters of the Manchurian River Heilungchiang. Inscribed on the blade was:
My three-foot long sword is as dear to me
As ten thousand volumes.
As heaven gave birth to me,
What did it want of me?
I hear a minister
Is to hail from the east
And a commander from the west;
If they are men
I too am a man equal to them.
The inscription tells of his spirit and his ambition, but they never saw realization. The two national trials forty years apart from each other, the Hideyoshi invasion and the Manchu invasion, were different in meaning. For the first invasion God prepared an escape route. The second led directly to surrender. While the first was drawn out over eight years, three months was all the second war took. For this reason General Im Kyeong-eop failed to do what Yi Sun-sin had done earlier.
Neither man was accepted by the nation. Admiral Yi died from a shot fired from an enemy musket. It could not have happened to him as com- unless he had deliberately exposed himself. Therefore, it is common belief that he committed suicide. The admiral foresaw that his victorious return would bring him into- a tangle of partisan feuding and certain death, so when he had defeated the enemy and assured himself that he would not return, he chose his way of dying. To such lengths did he go to save the country. The case of General Im was different: he was persecuted to the bitter end. This time, the nation could not be spared judgment for having murdered its hero. In the first war there were the volunteers that Korea can be proud of, in the second only shame.
While he was a man of sorrow full of indignation and frustration, representing an age ridden with oppression, General Im was at the same time like a new shoot pushing up from beneath the ice, a herald of an age of new hope and faith. Two years after the Manchu invasion, General Im while governor of Uiju, memorialized the throne out of his deep concern about the fate of the country. The last item reads:
Item 6. Defer to natural calamity. An ancient said that the beauty of a brief thought of the king is like an auspicious cloud and nurturing dew, and the vehemence of his momentary thought is like a gale and a peal of thunder. Well said. When heaven hates, it loves. Deferring to national calamity will render it harmless; lack of deference will bring peril and ruin. Disasters that have frequently befallen us in recent years are indeed a blessing. I sincerely beg you in all humility to seek to enhance your virtue so that disaster may turn into blessing.
Who would have guessed this was a remark by a military commander? Where many talk of his courage and fortitude, few are aware of him as a man of faith. I am not sure, but I doubt that many will pay close attention to the passage. For us, too, committed though we are to seeing everything through the eye of faith, this passage comes as a surprise.
Still, he really meant what he said. As an early autumn moon was shining over the T'onggeunjeong pavilion, the breeze coming across the Yalu could not but put one in a reminiscing mood. General Im solicitous of the country's future, was contemplating plans to bring the country back to life. He unburdened his troubled mind by saying, "The invalid, long since bedridden, now shows a hundred symptoms all at once. He coughs up phlegm, is short of breath, and it is not at all sure in the morning that he will last till evening." A general who was contemplating plans to save his country had no reason to use some formalistic or ancient cliches. Unquestionably, the last part of item six must have been written after much thinking. One would have expected that, as military commander, he would call for the increase of national wealth and the strengthening of the army. But Im Kyeong-eop counseled deference to disaster.
Frustrated by every plan that miscarried, every chance that was missed, one would have expected that he might have said, "Heaven has destroyed me.' To the contrary, he suggested that these disasters came because of heaven's love of the country. When we hear these words we cannot but think of the Hebrew prophet: "0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" How did he come to say, "When heaven hates, it loves?" What weight such a remark carries historically. This one remark from the general himself overwhelms us with gratitude, such gratitude as to bring tears to our eyes. As we hear him saying it, we find ourselves forgetting our regrets over the bungled opportunities for regaining Manchuria, our surrender at Samjondo, even the mismanagement of the country consequent upon the murder of the general at the hands of creatures worse than the beasts of the wild. Yes, the general was born neither to behead Taitsung of Ch'ing nor to beat off the Manchurian horde. Nor was he born to be honored in annual memorial services.
Would it be a mistake to say that he was born for the single purpose of pronouncing this one utterance? Not at all. Examination of his character, the times in which he acted and his activities lead us to a conviction t at his coming was to uphold this faith and urge on this repentance. On behalf of the nation he confessed his faith. Amid the ranting, raving and moaning across the land, his voice is much too small. Nevertheless, so long as his voice represented truth, it was bound to awaken the nation's soul. Had it not been for this one remark, how dreary and bleak would it have been for us! But then what weight would his remark have carried if he had returned a victorious general, instead of coming to a miserable end? For his utterance to have pierced our paralyzed hearts his end as a man of suffering had to be tragic. For him to be a man of faith, of conversion, he had to be a total failure. All the suffering that preceded him-was it not to evoke this one utterance for a suffering nation? For the only way to overcome suffering is to understand suffering in terms of God's love.
Back to Queen of Suffering Table of Contents On to Chapter VIII. The Coming of Christianity