As stated previously (in Korean Naval Firepower Part 1), there is evidence to suggest that gunpowder was in use in Korea during the Three Kingdoms period (57~668 AD). If, as some scholars believe, saltpeter firearms were invented in Korea in the 7th century, this would place the invention 100 years before it is believed to have been invented in China.
Wars with the Kitans, Jurchens, Mongols (918~1392 AD) and the wako pirates of Japan during the Koryo dynasty stimulated the development of new uses for gunpowder. One early example was the chuhwa (literally ‘a running fire’), a jet-propelled arrow based on the same principle as modern day rockets.
The chuhwa was reborn in the 15th century as the singijeon (신기전). The singijeon rocket had two unusual and potent features. Unlike other rockets, it produced a deafening noise in flight, discharging much fire and smoke. Secondly, it detonated upon impact. It was as a result very unpopular with enemy soldiers. The Battle of Haengju, one of the three great battles of the campaign against the Japanese invasion (1592~1598), was arguably won by these rockets, especially given the odds – 2,800 Koreans against a 30,000 strong enemy force.
The singijeon consisted of an arrow, an ignition-barrel carrying the explosive, and a fuel-barrel carrying the propellant. It was propelled firstly by the fuel-barrel, and then by the ignition-barrel, like a two-stage rocket. The was range was up to 1000 metres.
The largest variety was the tae-singijeon, 5.3 meters in length. Rockets comparable in scale did not appear until the latter half of the 19th century. For more than 300 years since its development in 1448, the singijeon was the world’s largest and most powerful rocket.
The designs for the rocket were included as an appendix of Kukjo Orye Sorye (1474), but it was not realized what device the design referred to until 1975, when Chae Yeon-suk, former president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, confirmed that they were the lost plans of the singijeon.
I sometimes wonder why Korea is known mainly for dog meat and Kim Jong-il, despite having so many amazing things in its past. The apparent aversion to self-promotion that Koreans have has always been the explanation I have used. But episodes like the above, with national treasures suddenly being discovered in documents that were there all the time, I suppose indicate that there is much about Korea’s past which remains hidden even to Koreans.