Won Gyun

Last updated
Won Gyun
Revised Romanization Won Gyun
McCune–Reischauer Wŏn Kyun
Pen name
Revised Romanization Pyeongjung
McCune–Reischauer P'yŏngchung

Won Gyun (Korean: 원균, hanja:元均 ; 12 February 1540 – 27 August 1597) was a Korean general and admiral during the Joseon Dynasty. He is best known for his campaigns against Japanese during Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea. Won was a member of Wonju Won family, which was well known for its members' military accomplishments. He was born in 1540 near Pyeongtaek and demonstrated his skill as warrior at a young age. He was qualified as a military officer and was first assigned to the northern border to defend against the Jurchens, who frequently raided Korean villages. Won led many successful campaigns with Yi Il and Yi Sun-sin against the Jurchens. After considerable accomplishments on the northern frontier, he was promoted to admiral in 1592 and sent to the southern coast of Gyeongsang Province to command the province's Western Fleet, along with Yi Sun-sin, who became admiral before Won and took command of Jeolla Province's Eastern Fleet. At the time, Won and Yi were cavalry leaders who had no experience with naval warfare.

Korean language Language spoken in Korea

The Korean language is an East Asian language spoken by about 80 million people. It is a member of the Koreanic language family and is the official and national language of both Koreas: North Korea and South Korea, with different standardized official forms used in each territory. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Changbai Korean Autonomous County of Jilin province, China. Historical and modern linguists classify Korean as a language isolate; however, it does have a few extinct relatives, which together with Korean itself and the Jeju language form the Koreanic language family. This implies that Korean is not an isolate, but a member of a micro-family. The idea that Korean belongs to the controversial Altaic language family is discredited in academic research. Korean is agglutinative in its morphology and SOV in its syntax.

Hanja Korean language characters of Chinese origin

Hanja is the Korean name for Chinese characters. More specifically, it refers to those Chinese characters borrowed from Chinese and incorporated into the Korean language with Korean pronunciation. Hanja-mal or Hanja-eo refers to words that can be written with Hanja, and hanmun refers to Classical Chinese writing, although "Hanja" is sometimes used loosely to encompass these other concepts. Because Hanja never underwent major reform, they are almost entirely identical to traditional Chinese and kyūjitai characters, though the stroke orders for some characters are slightly different. For example, the characters and are written as 敎 and 硏. Only a small number of Hanja characters are modified or unique to Korean. By contrast, many of the Chinese characters currently in use in Japan and Mainland China have been simplified, and contain fewer strokes than the corresponding Hanja characters.

Wonju Municipal City in Gwandong, South Korea

Wonju is the most populous city in Gangwon province, South Korea.


Military career

Upon passing the qualification exam, he was assigned to the northern border to defend against the Jurchens, who frequently raided Korean villages. Won led successful campaigns along with Yi Il and Yi Sun-sin against the Jurchens. He was promoted to admiral in 1592 and sent to the southern coast of Gyeongsang Province to command the province's Eastern Fleet, with Yi Sun-sin, who became admiral before Won and took command of Jeolla Province's Western Fleet. At the time, Won and Yi were cavalry leaders who had no experience with naval warfare.

The Jurchen, also known by many variant names, were a tribal confederation of Tungusic and affiliated peoples, subdivided into three major groups: Jianzhou Jurchens ; Wild Jurchens, often known as the Yeren ; and Haixi Jurchens, who traditionally inhabited the region of Manchuria. The Jurchen established the Jin dynasty, whose empire conquered the Northern Song in 1127, gaining control of most of North China. Jin control over China lasted until their 1234 conquest by the Mongols.

Yi Il was a distinguished Korean general who lived from 1538 to 1601.

Yi Sun-sin Korean naval commander

Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was a Korean naval commander famed for his victories against the Japanese navy during the Imjin war in the Joseon Dynasty, who became an exemplar of conduct for both the Koreans and Japanese. Despite the fact that he had no prior naval training, Admiral Yi was never defeated at sea nor lost a single ship under his command to enemy action, and military historians have placed him on par with Admiral Horatio Nelson as one of the greatest naval commanders in history. His title of Samdo Sugun Tongjesa, literally meaning "Naval Commander of the Three Provinces", was the title used for the commander of the Korean navy until 1896.

Before the Japanese Invasion

At this time, Japan was united after a long period of internal warfare by a new leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi had become supreme ruler over most of Japan by killing many rivals to rise to power. He decided to begin an expansionist war against Japan's neighbors. Some Koreans realized that the threat from Japan was great: They argued that the Joseon dynasty needed to prepare for invasion from Japan as well as the existing Jurchen menace. However, the government was divided along factional lines and the officials could not reach a decision. Hideyoshi saw the chance to take Korea unprepared.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi Japanese daimyo, warrior, general and politician

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a preeminent daimyō, warrior, general, samurai, and politician of the Sengoku period who is regarded as Japan's second "great unifier". He succeeded his former liege lord, Oda Nobunaga, and brought an end to the Warring Lords period. The period of his rule is often called the Momoyama period, named after Hideyoshi's castle. After his death, his young son Hideyori was displaced by Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Service during the first wave of Japanese invasion

On April 13, 1592, the Japanese fleet under Katō Kiyomasa launched a sudden strike on the Eastern Fleet of Gyeongsang province and disabled every ship under its control. The main army under Kato and Konishi Yukinaga landed on the Korean Peninsula the next day and marched northward. Won, who was commander of the Eastern Fleet of Gyeongsang province, was also routed by the invading Japanese. (Won's predecessor was able to pass a fleet combat readiness inspection just one year before the war.) With this able force, Admiral Won may have had an opportunity to intercept and engage Japanese invading forces at sea, thus perhaps preventing or delaying the Japanese incursion on Korean soil. However, he decided not to act upon the naval intelligence regarding the Japanese incursion until the Japanese landing party established a beachhead and successfully laid siege upon the city of Busan.

Katō Kiyomasa daimyo

Katō Kiyomasa was a Japanese daimyō of the Azuchi–Momoyama and Edo periods. His court title was Higo-no-kami. His child name was Yashamaru, and first name was Toranosuke.

Konishi Yukinaga daimyo

Konishi Yukinaga was a Kirishitan daimyō under Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

At this point, Won sank many of his ships in retreat to ensure they would not be captured by invading Japanese forces. With four ships left under his command, Won called for help from Yi Sun-sin, who had prepared for war and raised a smaller and battle ready fleet. King Seonjo finally ordered both admirals to fight against the Japanese forces on May 2, 1592. Won and Yi began their campaign two days later, with Admiral Yi Eok Ki, the commander of the Eastern Fleet of Jeolla Province who later became the commander of the Western Fleet of the same Province following Admiral Yi Sun-sin's promotion.

Seonjo of Joseon was the fourteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea from 1567 to 1608. Known for encouraging Confucianism and renovating state affairs at the beginning of his reign, political chaos and his incompetent leadership during the Japanese invasions of Korea marred his later years.

On May 7, the Korean navy under Yi destroyed a Japanese fleet in the Battle of Okpo. Later Won was promoted to an army general, while Yi Sun-sin became naval chief of staff.

The Battle of Okpo was a battle which took place during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98). Yi Sun-sin and Won Gyun's fleet engaged an anchored Japanese transport fleet and destroyed them. A day later, Yi Sun-sin and Won Gyun parted ways and returned home after receiving news of the fall of Hanseong.

Plot to remove Yi Sun-sin

In 1597, Japanese decided to stop all negotiations with the Koreans and Chinese Ming Dynasty and planned a re-invasion of Korea. To do so, they plotted to remove Admiral Yi Sun-sin from his position. Japanese spies directed by Konishi Yukinaga spread word that Katō Kiyomasa was urging other Japanese to continue fighting and would soon be crossing the sea. King Seonjo ordered Admiral Yi to capture Kato, but Yi refused to do so, as he knew that the words were the fabrications of Japanese agents.

Seonjo was in fear of a possible coup d'état attempt by Yi or by his supporters, which was never plotted, but Seonjo convinced himself it could happen any day: Yi refused to carry out his orders several times and his fleet was the strongest combat force on both sides. Yi refused to carry out the orders purely due to tactical reasons, but the act of insubordination itself, no matter how justifiable, frightened the King beyond his breaking point. King Seonjo finally ordered the execution of Yi, but the royal court reluctantly yet successfully resisted the order and was able to lower the punishment to imprisonment and demotion. Yi was placed under the command of Gwon Yul to recover from his wounds from the torture administered during the investigation of the charges against him. Seonjo then replaced Yi with Won Gyun as the naval chief of staff.

Battle of Chilcheonryang — Won Gyun's first and last naval engagement

Won also knew the information was false and did not advance toward Busan for the same tactical reasons Yi reported to the royal court before his removal from the post. Yi was removed for refusing orders to engage the Japanese. The government continued to trust the information and ordered Won to attack Japanese ships at Ungchŏn. Won attacked the Japanese — who were mostly unarmed and protected under the cease-fire treaty to support the negotiation process which was about to be terminated — and defeated them. He lost one of his battleships and its captain during the attack. He did not advance after receiving a letter of protest from the Japanese commander. Then Field Marshal Gwon Yul, who was also under heavy pressure from the king, recalled Won to his headquarters and once again ordered him to attack Busan. Won finally led the navy towards Busan, along with the famous admiral Yi Eok Ki, following orders despite tactical considerations.

The Japanese at first seemed to retreat, but it was a trap. The Japanese were prepared to devastate the Joseon navy before land invasion. The number of Japanese ships was so great that most Koreans were already frightened, including Admiral Bae Seol. The Japanese fleet, commanded by Todo Takatora, advanced toward Won Gyun's fleets. Won knew that he would lose the battle but had no choice but to engage.

At the Battle of Chilchonryang, most of Joseon Navy's ships were destroyed. Won was killed in action. Only the small detachment of twelve warships under the command of admiral Bae Sŏl — who refused to participate and fled even before the battle began — survived. Every other ship in the combat was destroyed or disabled, along with almost all of Joseon navy line officers and many capable mid-level commanders.


The battle opened the route for Japanese to advance to Yellow Sea, and Todo set up the plan to attack Hanyang from land and sea with Katō Kiyomasa and Konishi Yukinaga. However, Japan's hopes were crushed again by Yi Sun-sin's return at the Battle of Myeongnyang, which would decide the winner of the devastating war. Despite any historical controversy, Won Gyun and Yi Sun-sin received commendations following their deaths.


Next to his military career, Won Gyun is perhaps best known for his personal faults, which included excessive alcohol consumption and attempts at adultery. In his War Diaries, Yi Sun-Sin recalls reports and rumors about "cruel deeds" committed by Won and even mentions an incident in which Won had unsuccessfully attempted to seduce one of his subordinates's wife, calling him a "wicked man" and (at least partially) blaming him for his degradation ("Won employs all means to entrap me"). [1]

Much controversy lingers in regard to Won Gyun as a military leader. Widely panned by scholars and historians, there is recent research to suggest that Won Gyun may have been excessively vilified during the Park Chung-Hee administration to elevate Yi Sun-sin by juxtaposition. In particular, Won Gyun's earlier successes against the Jurchens have been buried and there is an interest in providing a more objective view of Won Gyun's military career.

While fault exists for Won Gyun's mistakes as a naval officer, much of the blame of the troubles during that period lies in the factionalized incompetence of the royal court. However, it is still hard to ignore his actions and lack of competency as a naval commander, and blame the political instability and indecision of the royal court for the result of the battle of Chilcheonryang. The battle led to the near-complete annihilation of the Korean navy in a single engagement against the Japanese, who were heretofore unable to prevail against the Koreans in a naval engagement.

Film and television


Video games

In the Admiral Yi campaign of the video game Empires: Dawn of the Modern World , Won Gyun is portrayed as a traitor to Korea, allying first with Manchu raiders harassing Korea's north and later with the Japanese invaders. In this portrayal, Won Gyun appears to be responsible for masterminding both attacks on Korea, with the eventual aim of becoming King of a reduced Korea, allied to Japan and tributary to Ming China. His treachery is discovered by Ryu Seong-ryong, and he is arrested.

See also

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  1. Yi Sun-sin, Nanjung Ilgi, pp. 266, 267-268.
  2. International Movie Data Base: Bulmyeolui Lee Soon-shin cast list. Retrieved 2012-04-18
  3. Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin (KBS 2004-2005), episode 10
  4. Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin (KBS 2004-2005), episode 92