What would have happened to the Joseon Dynasty without the outstanding performance of the naval forces during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592? We might have faced a much harsher destiny than we imagine, and it would have been a serious hardship in the history of Joseon.
The naval forces received the worst treatment among soldiers to the point that it was considered as one of the seven worst jobs after the mid-Joseon period. It wasn’t that the naval forces were weak or small in number. In Gyeongsang, Jeolla, and Chungcheong provinces, there were more naval forces than ground forces.
The reason why the naval forces were looked down upon was their service was exhausting and exposed them to frequent deaths or diseases. They were often the subject of power-based irregularities and mistreatment. Much of the tribute from seaside regions was seafood. Salt was popular across the nation. The naval forces were mobilized to produce salt and capture seafood during their military service. Warships back then were extremely vulnerable to wind and waves and soldiers were exposed to various diseases and contagions. As more and more soldiers ran away, the government came up with an extreme measure of hereditary service in the naval forces, which in turn made people avoid it even more.
Such circumstances had continued for over 100 years. When preparing prior to the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, the naval forces lacked military power and supplies. When Admiral Yi Sun-sin inspected troops and pointed to defects, commanders explained their struggles that people were tired and there were not enough supplies nor capacity. How did Yi respond? “We must do it, regardless,” he said. He was fond of subordinates like Jeong Woon who made it happen. Reducing the hours of fatigue duty or banning night time fatigue duty might have produced a different outcome from a victory of Yi’s troops.
Saying such things immediately invites criticism, perhaps because there were many cases in which such logic was misused. However, blindly enforcing just laws to completely prevent corruption may have led to the destruction of Joseon. Sometimes people oppose just laws not because they are in favor of injustice, but they oppose foolish laws in the name of justice because they are wise. There are matters that need to be banned by law and matters that need to be resolve by operation. Failure to distinguish the two causes a bigger tragedy.