Admiral Yi Sun-sin: a Brief Overview of His Life and Achievements

Written: May 2, 2015

My mother gave me this small book about one of the greatest yet unknown admirals and naval warfare innovators in history. However, this is much more than that. This is, I believe, more importantly a story about how great innovators, minds, and leaders can get squashed by bureaucracy. At first, I figured it was just a book glorifying a great Korean icon, because Koreans love to glorify themselves. Without getting too much into that, during the Japanese occupation, the Japanese denigrated anything Korean, so after liberation, Koreans became overly sensitive to their ego and now have a tendency to self-glorify. North Korea is an extreme example of cult of personality while South Korea is an extreme example of individual vanity with rampant cosmetic surgery. But fair to say, Admiral Sun-sin is greatly overlooked for what he allegedly accomplished: 23 victories and no losses, often with tremendous odds. In one infamous battle reminiscent of Sparta’s 300, with 13 ships he allegedly defeated 330 Japanese ships. This is where you call bullshit. Sun-sin meticulously kept a war diary, but this only means this is self-reporting. None-the-less, the Japanese will agree that he beat them, whether they had 330 ships or 100 is unknown, but if you look closely, it is plausible that with 13 ships he could defeat a much greater number.

Interestingly enough, a long time ago my mother gave me a study by the Harvard Business School about management decentralization. I don’t think she read the study, and I think she just thought it would be helpful for me as an Economics major. It was perhaps one of the most important things I read in my life as I entered the real world of work. You see, throughout the Industrial Revolution, economies of scale worked, and therefore, strict command and control, centralized organization worked for large scale companies, armies, and government agencies. However, up to a point. Once organizations consolidate and turn into monopolies and oligopolies, you start to get diseconomies of scale. People get complacent, innovation is crushed, cost is cut regardless of consequence, and profits squeezed out of everything. Eventually, the product and/or service is degraded. The Harvard study recommended decentralized organization and hierarchy. Well, we are witnessing the shift today especially after banks too big to fail, failed. Today, a new generation of Millennials are realizing that big corporations, big banks, big government, they all suck and they all produce low quality products and are untrustworthy, failing, and fragile. On top of that Millennials don’t want to be told what to do or even how as much as why, and they don’t like centralized command and control. This is good, because in the Information Age, it is all about innovation, creativity, adaptability, and flexibility.

What does this have to do with Admiral Sun-sin? Sun-sin was an innovator and purist. He wasn’t a bureaucrat and didn’t kiss people’s asses to get ahead. Ironically, as a result, he was sent off to run the dilapidated navy, sort of like an annoying corporate executive being sent off to open new markets in the Third World. However, being a genius, he built up a great navy. He didn’t invent the “turtle ship” a ship fully encapsulated, but he understood its strengths and built a navy around it. Keep in mind, his naval battles were between 1592 and 1598. Asia had cannons, muskets, and gunpowder then. The Japanese navy was formidable with well-trained crews, but their ships were not fully enclosed. Because their ships had lighter wood for speed and iron nails (which often rusted and wore out), their decks could not support a lot of cannon firepower. Their tactic was speed with their v-shaped hulls, so they could quickly approach an enemy vessel and board it. Sun-sin, however, focused on firepower and agility. With stronger, heavier wood and wooden nails that expanded with water, his vessels could support much greater cannon firepower. He could fire at greater distances with more power. The Korean coastline is also shallow so that his ships could travel easily where the Japanese couldn’t, and he meticulously studied the coastline for tactical advantages. Without the v-shaped hull, he could quickly turn his vessels any direction. As a result, it becomes more and more believable that he could destroy so many Japanese ships with a much smaller fleet. He could destroy them at a distance before any of them could get close enough to attempt to board. Even then, hidden spikes on the roof of his ships impaled or cut up the enemy.

Now after 19 victories and no losses and dominating the seas and forcing the Japanese to suspend their invasion of Korea and China, you would think the king’s court would elevate him to the status of war hero, but no. With the help of Japanese spies and a jealous land General Won Kyun, they besmirched Sun-sin and convinced the king that he was an insubordinate troublemaker. The king actually wanted to execute him, but the level-heads in the court convinced him that imprisonment and torture were sufficient. Sun-sin was demoted to the equivalent of a private, the lowest-ranking foot soldier, not even a sailor. You can see how idiotic bureaucracies are, and instead of promoting genius, leadership, results, and innovation, they stifle or destroy it and prefer politics, favoritism, rumors, lies, distortions, and obedience. The only reason Sun-sin could even become an admiral was first, the Korean military was not that large of a bureaucracy, and they thought the navy was unimportant. Throughout history, you see a pattern. Some great innovator and genius like Alexander the Great, Caesar, Muhammed, Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Napoleon come along. Through cracks and mistakes in the bureaucracy, somehow they get to a leadership position and their genius and creativity creates this huge imbalance of technology and strategy allowing them to totally destroy their enemies who are mired in bureaucracy. However, once they create an empire, they die or they start losing, and bureaucracy takes over and eventually the empire is destroyed. The main reason Europeans took over the world was that despite early starts in innovation, the Arabs and Chinese settled for bureaucracy over technology. The Europeans embroiled in countless wars because of geography which once isolated ethnicities and now were overcome by population growth and transportation technology, were forced to innovate or die. The Spanish forces that took over the Western Hemisphere not only had better technology but had the experience of countless wars.

General Won Kyun took over the navy, and he had no fucking idea what he was doing. He started off with 168 ships and after three battles, he was left with 13. In a panic, he jumped ship and ran ashore only to be intercepted by a Japanese assassin and beheaded. His fate was so poetic. In horror, the King immediately reinstated the foot soldier Sun-sin as naval commander and this is where he took the remaining 13 ships, and in a battle similar to the Spartan 300, he found a narrow inlet and forced the Japanese to fight there diminishing their numerical advantage. He also used underwater iron rope traps to pull enemy ships into one another.

I can only hope that the day and age of bureaucracy, command and control, centralization, and economies of scale are fading. Under this age, we saw nothing but the worst of humanity in the form of two world wars, the slaughter of tens of millions by the Soviet and Chinese states, genocide, Imperialism, pollution, massive economic meltdowns, and extreme income inequality. In an age that embraces technology and innovation as never before, the competitive advantage goes to smaller, smarter, and more creative people and organizations. As such, these people are more conscientious, humane, independent, and capable of learning and growth. I hope I’m not being nothing but a romantic idealist, but the signs seem to be pointing toward a bright future if we can only get over the last hurdles of desperate big bureaucracies clinging on to the last vestiges of their entitlement and power. It is actually a rather dangerous point. If smart enough, they could actually buy up all the new technology, most importantly the self-coding, learning artificial intelligence and command it not to innovate and help humanity but rather deceive and enslave humanity, instead of improving and teaching humans to be better people, trapping them in simulations and exploiting them for whatever purpose without proper compensation while there is a small group of elites who live in the real world with luxury and hedonistic self-indulgence. The race is on.…/…/B004FD3BSQ


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