OPINION

[Kim Seong-kon] Advice for young Koreans from Admiral Yi

By Kim Seong-kon
  • Published : May 22, 2018 - 17:31
  • Updated : May 22, 2018 - 17:31
Recently, someone sent me a list of “Admiral Yi Sun-sin’s advice.” Admiral Yi was a celebrated Korean Navy general who successfully defended his country at sea from the Japanese invasion in 1592. Totally unprepared for war, the Joseon Dynasty was short of battleships, soldiers, and supplies. Under these hopeless circumstances, Admiral Yi emerged as a brilliant tactician and a true war hero who valiantly fought for his country and countrymen against all odds. Amazingly, he fought twenty-three times and won all of them. Although he was killed in his last battle, Admiral Yi still lives on in the hearts of the Korean people as a legendary hero.

Therefore, Admiral Yi’s advice has every reason to appeal to the Korean mind. His first point of advice is “Do not blame your family for your present situation.” He adds, “I was born in a poor, fallen family and thus raised in a relative’s house. I am a descendant of a ruined family by treason.” Unlike today’s Korean youngsters, Admiral Yi did not blame his parents or family for his predicament or his seemingly hopeless prospects. Instead, he tried hard to overcome the disadvantages of his inherited circumstances.

Admiral Yi’s second piece of advice is “Do not give up simply because you think you are not smart enough to succeed.” Yi failed in the national exam to become a high-ranking government official, but he never gave up. He tried harder and harder and finally passed the exam when he was 32, very late and unusual for his time when bright people passed the exam as early as in their teens.

Yi’s third tip is “Do not complain that you deserve a better position in a better place.” He continues, “I wandered from one place to another as a low-ranking army officer at the remote national border. But I never complained.” He advises us not to complain about our present position and simply do our best instead. Someday, then, we will be recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, our society is full of the discontented who constantly complain about their present job, rank, or class.

Next, he says, “Do not make excuses for your wrongdoings by saying you could not refuse orders from your superiors.” He continues, “I was threatened and even fired a number of times by refuting unjust orders from my superiors.” Of course, it will not be easy, and yet we need to have the courage to say “No!” in thunder when everybody chants “Yes!”

Yi’s fifth point is “Do not give up, even if you are not in good health.” Indeed, Admiral Yi was known to suffer from a chronic gastro-enteric disorder and various contagious diseases. Nevertheless, he was determined to fight his ill health all through his life. As a result, he was able to climb to the top of his profession despite his poor health.

The sixth piece of counsel from Yi is “Do not complain that you do not have good opportunities.” You may think you will never get a chance, but surely it will come to you if only you try and wait. Admiral Yi was appointed an admiral when he was 47, which was very late in his times.

Yi’s seventh wise saying is “Do not be disappointed even though you do not have a supporting group or faction.” Admiral Yi was alone, isolated and alienated from political factions and did not receive any support from them, morally or materially. However, instead of trying to flock to others for support in times of crisis, Yi boldly chose to stand alone and fight the enemy all by himself. A great man may be alone, but he does not have to be lonely.

His eighth piece of advice is “Do not complain even though your superiors do not recognize your ability.” He says, “Due to the king’s suspicion and misunderstanding, I had hard times and even did time in jail.” Nevertheless, the admiral was loyal to his nation and people, and did not expect any recognition from the king.

Yi’s ninth point is “Do not despair even if you do not have resources.” Indeed, hurriedly returning from jail, Admiral Yi was able to stop 113 approaching Japanese battleships with only 12 remaining ships! Unlike Admiral Yi, our young people today frequently despair, muttering, “How can I possibly compete with those who are richer and more privileged than me?”

The tenth point of advice from Yi is “Refrain from loving your family in a wrong way.” Yi lost his 20-year-old son in the war, and yet he sent his other sons to the battlefield. Unlike Admiral Yi, many of our leaders will be busy conspiring to make their sons be exempted from dangerous duties in times of war.

I do not know if these ten pieces of penetrating advice were written by Admiral Yi himself or someone else who compiled them with reference to Yi’s life. Either way, Admiral Yi’s advice is so compelling and desperately needed by young Koreans these days.


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and distinguished visiting professor at George Washington University. He can be reached at sukim@snu.ac.kr –Ed.