The Japanese invasion of Korea or the Imjin War (1592–1598) is regarded as one of the most traumatic events in the history of Korea. The invasions broke out into a full-scale East Asian war which included the involvement of the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. Despite its atrocities, one significant outcome of the invasions is the discourse of nation that emerged during the sixteenth century. This sense of common national identity in Choson was formed and defined due to two important aspects of the Imjin War. I will be discussing how the rise of the Righteous Army as well as the use of vernacular Korean contributed to the birth of the Korean nation.

The Korean Royal Army was both unprepared and ineffective in resisting the aggressive Japanese forces that swept through their land. The survival of the Choson people were at stake as civilians were being killed and their homes were being destroyed. A sense of panic and distrust in the government became the precedent of the rapidly spreading volunteer army movement that arose during the war. They were referred to as the Righteous Army (Uibyong) and were often led by local elites (yangban) of different provinces. They consisted of countryside civilians and peasants who voluntarily took up arms and waged guerilla warfare against the Japanese (Haboush 24). They fought tirelessly to protect their villages and families. The local elites introduced a new rhetoric of ethnic identity which encouraged civilians to pledge such loyalty to Choson. Unlike before, Koreans were united in resisting the Japanese invasions (Seth 156). The Uibyŏng represented a national belief in which national destiny was bound by the goals and actions of the local people. The main way the volunteer army evolved into a national movement was the development of accessible communication by army leaders and civilians (Haboush 26).

In order to recruit more volunteers, local elites would send out letters of exhortation (kyŏksŏ) to the Korean people regardless of their social status or place of origin which created a more inclusive Choson than before. An exhortation is an inspirational, persuasive piece of writing that would encourage the readers to feel or act a certain way. These letters were written by the local elites with the intent to mobilize the army and seek the funds to support the cause. The leaders wrote and spread these exhortations to civilians which created a vision of Korea where everyone was united in an inseparable and cohesive community, and for which all should fight risking death (Haboush 16).  These civilians were called to become active contributors to protecting the nation and fighting off the Japanese in order to maintain their way of life.

The writers of these exhortations would often utilize imagery and metaphors from the Korean landscape, common ancestry, and a shared history to invoke a sense of moral duty among the Choson people (Haboush 39). Additionally, the letters highlighted major themes such as the crimes committed against them by invaders, Korean values, sacrifice, loss, and the hopes of restoration in the future. The goal was to appeal to the emotions of readers so that they would feel both encouraged and obligated to put their lives on the line for their nation. One remarkable letter that was able to deliver deep emotional power to a wide audience was Ko Kyongmyong’s “letter written on horseback”. Ko states in his exhortation:

Can your loyal hearts forget your sovereign? Rightful duty calls upon us to die for our country (sun’guk). Each within the limits of your ability, whether with weapons or food, whether mounting on horseback, charging into battle, or rising from your rice paddy, casting aside your plow to join in battle, each do your utmost to reclaim your righteous heart. If anyone has strategies to cease this chaos, let us act with him (Haboush 43).

This was a means of persuasion to call civilians into action and contribute to the resistance in any way that they could. Ko challenged and redefined what loyalty to the nation meant for Koreans. It allowed people to consider their own personal and collective identity, the importance of living as moral human beings, and of remaining Korean despite their barbaric enemies.

In order to recruit more volunteers and strengthen their defense, the Korean government used these letters as a tool to their advantage. The letters served two main purposes during the war in terms of communication. The two purposes were to send messages to the Korean population in a medium accessible only to them and not to foreign forces, as well as to reach the widest range of audiences in an affecting rhetoric (Haboush 73). In order to do this, they began utilizing vernacular Korean as a medium to communicate rather than using Classical Chinese as they did before. When the government sent out letters in vernacular Korean, they intentionally avoided Classical Chinese which neighboring people could understand. Prior to this, Koreans viewed themselves as secondary members to the greater Confucian cultural sphere. With the developed use of their own language, the medium of communication became more inclusive across Koreans specifically.

Overall, it was the encounters with foreigners, such as the Japanese or later the Manchus, on Korean land that challenged the Choson people in how they distinguished their own people from outsiders. The immediate threat to their survival encouraged the people to work together and identify with one another. The Imjin War impacted many of the aspects that define how people identify with one another including their culture, values, language, and shared history.

Metadata

Ashley Pae (Political Science, UCLA '22), “How war shaped Korean ideas of nation,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed June 13, 2024, https://koreanhistory.humspace.ucla.edu/items/show/43.