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Posted on Mar 12, 2009 in Stuff We Like

Guest POV – The Siege of Ulsan

By Joshua Gilbert

In terms of impact, the Asian Seven Year’s War or the Imjin War, stands out as one of the most epic conflicts of East Asian history, and remains engraved on the Korean national consciousness. Within that conflict one celebrated chapter is the Siege of Ulsan, conducted in January 1598 during the second phase of the war.

Following the initial Japanese success at Namwon, the allied armies of Ming China and Joseon Korea managed to stem the tide, preventing the fall of Seoul. With allied control of the sea secured by the battle of Myongnyang the Japanese were forced to fall back to their fortress line, a perimeter arc stretching 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from Sunch’on to Ulsan. This occurred in autumn 1597.

The allied leadership resolved to break the Japanese defenses by a three-pronged assault that winter. The titular leader of the allied forces, the Ming general Yang Hao, took personal command of the prong aimed at Ulsan, and chose his Joseon equivalent, Gwon Yul, as his deputy. On January 14th, 1598, they set out for Ulsan with nearly 45,000 men.


Excluding strategic reasons, the choice of Ulsan for a target was simple. The Japanese commander was Kato Kiyomasa, a dangerously aggressive general with whom both the Chinese and the Koreans had a bone to pick. Ulsan at the time was also unfinished, and the central keep itself was still under construction. On January 29th the allied offensive began in earnest. The assault caught the understrength garrison by surprise, and it was driven back under the press of the allied advance. Within days the garrison was in bad condition, decimated by heavy losses and reduced to starvation and thirst.

But unexpectedly Kato Kiyomasa (who had been away at an outlying camp) returned with a small force and some extra supplies. His sudden appearance shocked the allies, and he furiously broke through their lines into Ulsan. At the same time the garrison made a countercharge from a side gate of the castle. The allied forces, caught off guard by the ferocity of the Japanese resistance, were forced to fall back under heavy fire and give control of the castle itself to Kato, leaving them in control of the outer works.

One samurai at the battle, Okochi Hidemoto, described the garrison’s charge:

“But as friend and foe were all mixed up we could not fire our guns. A soldier who had sallied out and taken a head halfway down the slope had achieved the exploit of yarishita (first to take a head with a spear), then our troops, without the loss of a single man, began to pull back.”

With the first part of the battle over, both sides settled down for a siege. Yang Hao left the running of the siege itself to his able lieutenant, Ma Gui. Ma was fully aware that Ulsan needed to fall quickly, as allied morale was already plummeting. But there were problems. Frozen rain, endemic to Korean winters, had begun to fall, turning the ground into a quagmire. The Ming siege train, already having trouble progressing through the rough countryside, became so lodged in the muck that it played no role in the campaign.

There was also the problem of the Japanese defenders themselves. Kato’s arrival had raised the garrison’s morale, allowing the feared Japanese mastery of muskets to come into play again. The high Japanese rate of fire effectively prevented the allies from reaching the walls of Ulsan unless they were willing to suffer heavy casualties. Ma Gui opted to instead starve the garrison out, branching out his forces into the surrounding area to control the forage and prevent any additional Japanese forces from arriving.

The siege effectively turned into a stalemate. Over the course of the next several days both the allies and the Japanese battered away at each other, suffering horrific casualties on both sides of the lines. The freezing rain continued throughout, adding to the misery. Yang Hao was reduced to ineffective frustration: even after he breached Ulsan’s walls the defenders were still able to resist, despite the appalling conditions. Yang was also concerned by the mounting number of outside Japanese attempts to break through, which forced him to detach more men from the siege force to contain them.

However, on February 5th, following a failed Korean assault which strained relations with the Joseon, a peace missive arrived from Kato. The allied leaders were now assured that conditions must be even worse then they seemed, and the testimony of Japanese captives confirmed it. But Yang did not accept; he wanted to force Kato to surrender not to negotiate.

But the allied camp was not in much better shape. As the Japanese discovered, the besiegers were also getting low on food, but they were confident supplies could hold out until Ulsan fell. On February 8th it all turned out for naught when the advance forces of Mori Hidemoto’s naval squadron arrived on the banks of the Taehe River and swept the Ming holding force aside.

Yang Hao was thrown into panic and consulted his generals. Joseon court minister Yi Tokhyang advised leaving a small force behind to keep Ulsan surrounded while moving off with the bulk of the allied army to keep the Japanese from landing. But Yang was concerned that Kato Kiyomasa could break through in such conditions and did not move. When reports arrived that nearly 60,000 Japanese troops had landed, Yang Hao bolted for Seoul, fearing destruction. The allied army broke down, and the combined forces of Mori and Kato nearly crushed the allies between them.

The siege of Ulsan was over. But in the end the Japanese victory was bittersweet; it did nothing to change the ultimate course of the war. The Japanese withdrew from Korea within months, on orders from the ailing dictator Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the allied triumph was sealed by the naval victory at Noryang Point.

My question is: The Siege of Ulsan was a "very close run thing," and the Japanese victory was never assured. As Yang Hao, what would you do differently? Please give two examples below.

Visit Joshua Gilbert at his Website, J. Gilbert History Productions.

1 Comment

  1. Based on the history presented here, Yang Hao committed several grave errors that turned a potential victory into defeat. The first error was insufficient scouting of the surrounding area during the days of the initial assault. During a siege you have two fronts to mind; the inward one and the outward one. Kato Kiyomasa’s successful gaining of the element of surprise on his arrival indicates that Yang Hao likely did not deploy and scout with both of these fronts in mind. Only after Kato Kiyomasa had already gotten in with critical supplies does it sound like Yang started to take the outward front seriously. Without those supplies for the Japanese and the morale boost of their leader’s presence, the entire siege would likely have ended quite swiftly.

    The second major blunder was the refusal to negotiate with the starving Japanese garrison. Perhaps this was due to the personal enmity against Kato Kiyomasa, but it was clear that Yang Hao had lost sight of the objective: capture Ulsan. Sun Tzu wrote ‘A surrounded army must be given a way out.’ The previous blunders had led to a situation where continuing the siege was risky in terms of the attacking armies supplies, troop morale, and even of fending off continued relief efforts from outside Japanese forces. Yang Hao should have negotiated, and offered the Japanese the chance to leave Ulsan on their own. If this had been done, perhaps there would have been enough time to claim the fortifications and change the outcome of Mori Hidemoto’s arrival.