Jo Hon (1544–1592) was a bureaucrat in the time of the feudal Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). He fought as the commander of a section of the volunteers’ army during the Imjin Patriotic War, known as the Seven Years’ War in Japan (1592–1598).
From the time before the outbreak of the war, Japanese interest to conduct an organized military raid on Korea became well known throughout the Asian-Pacific Region. In response, Jo insisted upon the strengthening of national defense.
Now, factions were politically growing apart in the land, threatening to turn a serene land into a hotbed of feuding. This hostility dramatically affected policy in the kingdom. In March 1591, Hwang Yun Gil and Kim Song Il went to Japan as official government envoys. The trip was met with moderate success, but failed to turn away Japanese interests in obtaining “services and resources” in Joseon Korea. Returning home, senior envoy Hwang Yun Gil, belonging to the Soin faction, reported to King Seonjo that Japan would surely make an inroad into Korea in the future – while junior envoy Kim Song Il, belonging to the Tongin faction, reported that Japan would not invade Korea, intentionally distorting the fact so as to offer opposition to the Soin faction.
At that time Jo Hon, dwelling on the inevitability of Japan’s invasion of Korea, suggested to the King that preparations should be stepped up to cope with the prevailing situation. He called upon the King to ignore the factional bickering and focus on the impending invasion. This was not the first time he had ever proposed to the King to take a firm attitude toward Japan, but it was the most sincere this time around.
In 1586 Japan impertinently demanded the King of Korea to pay a visit to the island country and strongly insisted that Korea dispatch an envoy to its land. Indignant at this, Jo Hon sent the King a letter in 1588 asking to turn down what Jon felt was the “arrogant demand of the Japanese islands.” The King subsequently refused to read it, ordering the letter to be thrown into the fire, thereby leaving the letter unanswered.
Unable to break his will, Jo went to the royal palace with an axe in his hand, trying to present a similar letter to the King, but for this matter he was exiled to Kilju.
In the place of his exile, Jo heard that Hwang Yun Gil and Kim Song Il were slated to be sent to Japan as envoys. He sent up a memorial to the King once again in opposition to it. His letter, however, could not reach the King, as it was turned down by the provincial governor for the reason that its contents were too serious.
This time, on hearing that Japan was preparing for an inroad into Korea, Jo could not stand it. Though he had been to a penal settlement on account of his actions toward the King, he sent another letter – his last in a long string of letters.
Reading Jo’s letter, the King burnt it up and gave no reply to him, saying, “This man has been to prison for his crazy letter. But he is now going mad again, instead of coming to his senses. He is, indeed, a blockhead with no sense of shame.”
Extremely mortified to hear of the King’s words after three days and unable to lighten his spirits, Jo bumped his head against the cornerstone of a pillar for days on end. People took hold of him and dissuaded him from doing so, saying that it was an excessive behavior. But he kept on hitting his head against the cornerstone, saying, “How can I hope for living as a subject who has failed to help the King follow the right path? He refuses to listen to a dire situation! Let’s hope we don’t perish with his inability to take charge!” According to onlookers, he was depressed and full of sorrow almost all the time.
In April 1592, the Japanese began to invade Korea at last. King Seonjo and his retinue, finding a shortage of capable and willing fighters, were forced to flee north of Pyongyang to escape the attack. The penal settlements and their subjects were left behind, of course. Upon receiving this news, Jo escaped from the prison and went to war, wearing a sword at his side, even though he was ill with a debilitating infection. He organized a small army in Okchon from the former prisoners and local people, and called upon them “to rise as one to smash the enemy for the sake of the country” by issuing a written appeal to each individual. Early in August of that year he, in command of some 1,700 volunteers, drove out the enemy who had taken Chongju by force a month prior. At the end of the same month he left in command of 700 volunteers in order to make attack on the Kobayagawa-led unit and the Tachibana-led unit—they were his enemy’s main force stationed in Kumsan. At that time he sent a letter to Kwon Ryul suggesting a joint operation, but it was just on the edge of going into battle that there came a reply letter from Kwon Ryul proposing the putting off of the appointed time.
One of Jo’s subordinates suggested making a temporary retreat and straightening up the ranks. But the commander set in upon the enemy’s position and fought a heated exchange with the enemy, saying, “How could a man wish for living an ignoble life on account of a national crisis we are now in? This is the very land for me to die in, and I will not delay it any further as before.” In this battle he fell in action together with other volunteers, including his own son, while fighting bravely against the aggressor troops who were attempting to creep into the Jolla provincial area.
In recognition of his meritorious services in war, the feudal Joseon Dynasty government conferred the posthumous rank of the Minister of Interior.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has erected a small monument to his determined efforts outside of the Royal Tombs in Pyongyang.