Experience a piece of Korea’s war-fraught past with a visit to the Jinju Fortress and a peek at the battles of the Imjin Invasions.
It was late in the autumn of 1592; the gravely outnumbered defenders had ran out of bullets, cannonballs and arrows to fire at the battle-scarred enemy below. As humongous siege towers approached the high walls of Jinju Fortress, the ragtag group of warrior monks, undisciplined guerrillas and disgraced generals that made up the city garrison began to hurl stones—or anything remotely hefty—over the beleaguered walls. With a force only a tenth of the opposition, this seemingly futile resistance amazingly forced the 30,000 invading Japanese warriors to flee. Spirits in the Joseon Kingdom were lifted… but for all too briefly.
Despite Korea’s mightiest hero, Yi Sun-sin, absolutely schooling the Japanese in the ways of naval warfare, the land battles of the Imjin War of 1592 – 1598 were more bleak for Korea. City after city fell to the Japanese blitzkrieg with ease—but the city of Jinju remained a nefarious thorn in the samurai backside.
At first glance Jinju Fortress, the tourist heart of the small city in South Gyeongsang Province, offers little hint of its violent past. Sat alongside a bend in the commodious Nam River, surrounded by the city yet within sight of forested mountains, the atmosphere is in fact positively peaceful. Interspersed between gangly trees, grassy hills and wide-open spaces are temples, shrines, pavilions, huge wooden gates, restaurants, and a national museum. A stroll along the high palisades while peering down on the lazy river below is highly recommended. Kick off your shoes and transfix yourself with the occasional period music and dance performances.
Standing just inside the North Gate is a statue of the indomitable Kim Si-min. The heroic general who held out against the invaders for several days greets visitors by pointing purposely towards the battlements. He is not the only solider to be found still knocking about the grounds, mind. Other—some might say creepily—realistic waxwork soldiers are strewn about the fort.
Due to the volatile nature of Korean history, much, if not all of what remains today was rebuilt sometime after the Korean War. In fact, the elation of Jinju’s great victory of 1592 was to be short-lived. Nine months later, the Japanese invaders were retreating a bloody path back to their ships in the south. But before reaching the sea, the samurai commanders somehow found time to settle the score with the defiant Jinju, finally breaching the city’s walls in a second fight. If accounts from the time are to be believed, the waters of the Nam River at the foot of the fort could not dilute the blood that trickled down from the battle above.
Chokseongnu Pavilion, perched by the castle walls by a cliff edge, was an important command base in both battles. In peaceful times, this beautiful building was used as a Confucian exam hall.
Close by is a shrine dedicated to Korean martyr Nongae. It was here at the “Rock of Righteousness” (Uiam) that the grief-stricken courtesan cunningly lured into her open arms a conquering Japanese general. Holding her quarry tight around the shoulders, she plunged the two of them into the bloody river below.
Nearby sits the Jinju National Museum, an eccentric building filled with exhibitions of historical and cultural artifacts. As Jinju is remembered as one of the “three great Korean victories of the Imjin War”, the second floor of the museum focuses on the 16th century and the battles fought here and at sea. But it’s not all war; relics on the first floor focus more on the general history of South Gyeongsang Province. There’s also a library, auditorium, hands-on learning center and a 3D movie theatre to peruse. For more information on the museum, the fortress and other events cracking off in Jinju, investigate the museum’s
website at jinju.museum.go.kr.