By Yang Sung-jin
The notion that the Choson Dynasty wallowed in philosophical musings at the cost of military preparedness is convincing. True, pen-scribbling bureaucrats set the stage for central politics, while military officers faded into obscurity. Yet it is also true that this notion unwittingly neglects the first half of the 500-year history, the era in which a military build-up was the chief concern among top policymakers.
The fifth monarch of the Dynasty, King Munjong (r. 1450-1452), was one of the hawkish. He eagerly launched a number of military reinforcement projects and never shied away from supervising experiments in person.
On Jan. 16, 1451, King Munjong appeared in a military exercise taking place near the palace. A total of 700 soldiers formed a tactical lineup composed of a mock attack and defense. The operation was orderly and fine-tuned, the Annals historiographers observed.
Meanwhile, cannons were test-fired in front of the king. Then, the soldiers performed a demonstration of hwacha (fire cartwheel) which shot through all the targets positioned 80 steps apart.
“Worrying about the northern barbarians’ possible invasion, the king was fully focused on strengthening military preparedness. As a result, all the military equipment was manufactured with precision and the soldiers’ capabilities were impeccable due to the king’s frequent supervision,” an article in the Annals says.
In 1627, the Ministry of Defense created a to-do list aimed at King Injo’s military build-up. First on the list were new weather-proof military uniforms made of light leather, instead of the conventional iron armor, which was costly and cumbersome.
Modest Proposal for New Weapons
One of the weapons mentioned in the report was “samhyol-chongtong” (meaning ‘three-hole cannon’ in Korean). “This firearm is so efficient that it can hit three targets simultaneously, while frightening the enemy with its far-reaching explosive sound. Best of all, production cost is reasonably lower than other firearms,” the report claimed. So the request for more “samhyol-chongtong” was granted by the king.
Another firearm included on the list was “chiroepo” (mine cannon) with high fire-power. Though the specification of the cannon is unavailable today, the Choson military officials made much of it, calling it second-to-none in a defense operation. The only downside was its huge cost.
Meanwhile, the report also recommended production of “komajak,” a booby trap designed to trip horses. Previously, this device was made of iron, making it difficult to move around in search of tactical points. Thus newly proposed here was a cheaper version using mainly oak tree in its make-up, which was readily sanctioned by King Injo.
The development of such high-powered military equipment in Choson was a headache for China, then the meddlesome superpower in East Asia. On Jan. 12, 1419, a delegation of Chinese diplomats arrived in Seoul and demanded a demonstration of gunpowder firearms.
With dusk shrouding the test area, Chinese diplomats and Choson officials were set to witness the actual power of a new set of firearms. As cannon blasts rang out one after another, brightening the darkness intermittently, one Chinese delegate named Yu Chon hid behind a nearby building twice, obviously surprised by the weapons’ power.
Another Chinese official, Hwang Um, tried not to show any emotion in reaction to the spectacular nightly demonstration, yet his facial expression looked perturbed, the article of the Annals says.
What should be noted regarding the gunpowder firearms is the development of rocket-oriented weapons. For instance, an article dated Nov. 22, 1447, comments on “chuhwa” (running fire), a handy rocket launcher used by a cavalryman.
“Chuhwa has a great advantage. It’s possible to hit a target while marching on a horse. Also, its fire-power is deadly and its explosive sound threatening,” King Sejong exalted.
In the same year, the king positioned some 5,500 chuhwas in northern frontiers and also ordered the province chiefs to produce more chuhwas with the materials given by the central government.
“Sinkijon” (ghost-like machine arrow) was a more advanced version of the chuhwa. Once out of the rocket launcher, the fire-arrows were set to detonate automatically near the target area.
Manufactured from the early 15th to mid-16th century, sinkijon was actively deployed in the northern frontiers, playing a pivotal role in fending off invasions on numerous occasions. Also the high-powered firearm was utilized in the southern provinces to check the Japanese sea-borne marauders at bay.
The main body of the sinkijon’s rocket launcher was 5-6 meters long, the largest of its kind at the time. Only 350 years after the Choson utilized such large-scale rockets in actual warfare, the British, led by Sir William Congrieve, devised in 1805 a series of barrage rockets ranging in weight from 8 to 136 kilograms (18 to 300 pounds) that could match the sinkijon’s force.
A sinkijon was capable of firing as many as 100 fire-arrows or explosive grenades. Its long-range fire-power was effective in catching the enemy off guard. The fire-arrow contained a device equipped with gunpowder and shrapnel, timed to explode near the target.
Years later, sinkijon was given another significant upgrade, which enabled it to hurl a fire-arrow made up of small warheads and programmed to detonate and shower multiple explosions around the enemy.
In 1451, King Munjong ordered a drastic upgrade of hwacha, a rocket launcher on a cartwheel. This improvement allowed as many as 100 sinkijons to be mounted on the hwacha, boosting the overall fire-power and mobility of the rocket.
King Munjong was also worried that the precious hwacha might be neglected and used only during military training periods. So he ordered government agencies to use the hwacha as a cartwheel during times of peace.