There is a story that when the nascent Korean shipping industry was attempting to raise capital, Barclays asked what the Koreans could provide in the way of security for the loan. The Korean executive is said to have taken a 500 won bill from his pocket, which featured the turtle ship of Yi Sun-sin, and offered it as proof that the venture would be a success. The rest, as they say, is history.
Anyone who has spent some time in Korea will probably have seen a model of the ‘Kobukson’, known as the world’s first ironclad warship.
Although the most feted aspect of Yi Sun-sin’s defensive campaign against the Japanese invaders, it is only a detail, albeit a crucial one. His campaign was waged without a single defeat, or the loss of a single ship. He had to contend with great odds in battles, at one stage faced with over three hundred enemy vessels, compared to his own fleet of thirteen. Not only this, but his enemies at home eventually succeeded in having him imprisoned and tortured for treason. Throughout all, he maintained a steady course.
His stability was based on the fact that his actions were for his country, rather than his own career. But to succeed in such adverse conditions required ingenuity as well as bravery. At one time, when short of funds, he boiled sea water and sold the salt to merchants. The Turtle Ship is perhaps the most spectacular expression of this ingenuity. It was not the sole invention of Yi – a number of people contributed to it.
What made the ‘Turtle Ship’ such an important weapon? There were two reasons: superior fire-power and structural design.
The roof was covered with iron spikes to prevent the enemy from boarding.
Cannons were placed at every angle on the ship, and the ‘dragon’s head’ emitted smoke to provide cover and distraction.
The ship was well-suited for ramming, as it was sturdier than the enemy ships thanks to the red pine timber and the use of wooden nails which expanded as they absorbed seawater.
The enhanced structural integrity also enabled it to carry heavier cannons than the enemy, with greater range.
As with other Korean traditions, innovation on the sea has carried through to the modern age, with Korean shipbuilders currently leading the world market, both in construction of vessels, where they account for 40% of the total market and over 70% in the high-end sectors (LNG carriers, drillships etc.) and also naval constructions such as floating and ‘on ground’ docks.