By Don M. Lopez


Korean is classified as Ural-Altaic language and as such shares a common heritage with the Japanese language. Korean etymology is traced to two primary sources. Chinese is one principle source and these words are referred to as Sino-Korean. They are distinguished by the fact that there are Chinese characters to represent them. Chinese characters are referred to as "hanja" in Korean. In the 15th century, King Sejong developed the Korean alphabet to improve literacy and establish the Korean language in its own right. The Korean alphabet is known as "hangul" and is a phonetic alphabet of 21 consonants, 8 vowels, and several diphthongs. The second major source of Korean words are classified as native Korean. They are words believed to have originated in Korea and hence have no hanja (Chinese characters) associated with them. Imjin is a Sino-Korean word whose component Chinese characters mean "water" and "dragon." I have displayed "IMJIN" below in English, Korean, and Chinese.



On the journey of building the www.imjinscout.com web site, I have continued to learn an enormous amount about the DMZ and the soldiers who served there both before and after my 8 months in 1969. It is amazing how much history is associated with the origin and evolution of the Imjin Scout. Most of this history has been thoroughly covered on the site. However, while I was assembling and publishing the many pages of Imjin Scout history, my curiosity was arroused about the origin of the Imjin name. As I began my search I ran across many references to the 1951 Battle of the Imjin which took place during the Korean War. I also found many references to the the Imjin War, or Imjin Waerun to the Koreans, in which the Koreans fought against the Japanese General Hideyoshi. It seems likely that the name Imjin Scout was motivated by these great battles. In addition, the Imjin River provides a very significant boundary along the southern strip of land that was for many years the sector of the DMZ defended by Americans. It is between the Imjin River to the south and the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) to the north that the Imjin Scout performed his principle mission.

But this still left me wondering about the origin of the Imjin name. Most of the references to the Imjinwaerun or "Imjin War," which took place at the end of the sixteenth century, made oblique references to a connection between Imjin and the Chinese calendar. For several weeks I have continued to research this thread trying to shed light on the exact meaning of Imjin. What I discovered truly has satisfied my curiosity as well clarified some other related subjects. Imjin does indeed describe a period of time on the Chinese calendar. Imjin is defined as the 29th binary term of the sexagenary cycle. [1] The Chinese calendar is a perpetual calendar defined in 60-year cycles. A single cycle is called a Sexagenary Cycle. Each year of the cycle is given a name and is made up of two parts - the Celestial Stem and the Earthly Branch. There are 10 Celestial Stems and 12 Earthly Branches. In the case of Imjin, "im" means water and "jin" means dragon. See the matrix of celestial stems and earthy branches below. Keep in mind that the Chinese pronunciation of Imjin is slightly different than in Korean. Refer to the hanja in the box above to clarify this.

Here is a PDF document (You will need Acrobat Reader to open it.) which explains the sexagenary cycle in detail. It also explans how to calculate lunar years.

Most of us are very familiar with the "earthly branches" as these are touted every year during the Chinese (lunar) new year. I think you will recognize the twelve animals that represent the "earthy branches." This discovery fascinated me for several of reasons. First of all, I had finally figured out the origin of the name Imjin. Second, I had expanded my knowledge of the Chinese calendar and its lunar cycle. Third, I now understood why the 60th birthday is so significant throughout Asia. You probably remember the big fuss over Kim Il-Sung's 60th birthday. He and his followers made a promise to deliver a re-united Korea by his 60th birthday. The importance of the 60th birthday is that at 60, a person has gone through the entire cycle of the sexagenary Chinese calendar. The Korean celebration of the 60th birthday is called Hwan-gap.


Now back to story of Imjin. Imjin is the combination of Im (Ren in Chinese) which means water, and Jin (Chen in Chinese) which means dragon. Hence, Imjin means "water dragon," an apt name for the river which rages during the Korean monsoon season. In 1592, when Admiral Yi defeated the Japanese navy, the Chinese calendar was in the "Imjin" year of the sexagenary cycle, hence the Koreans refer to the war as the "Imjin Waerun."

Now for the real clincher. As I pored over the details of the Chinese sexagenary cyle and mapped the Chinese 60 year cycle onto the present day, what I discovered was truly amazing. It turns out that 1952, the year of the Battle of the Imjin, was also the year of Imjin on the lunar calendar (1592+360). What a strange coincidence!

The Koreans have great pride in Admiral Yi and his victory in the naval battle against the Japanese and in which he lost his life. It is the combination of this pride, the logical association of "Water Dragon" to the river, as well as the overall importance of the river that resulted in the name Imjin for the river. Add to this the "The Battle of the Imjin" in 1952 and it is only natural that we would have been named "Imjin Scouts."

[1] The definition of Imjin: The 29th binary term of the sexagenary cycle. A KOREAN-ENGLISH DICTIONARY by Samuel E. Martin, Yang Ha Lee, and Sung-Un Chang, Yale University, 1968, p. 1363.

The Imjin War

The Imjin War (1592-98), also known as the Hideyoshi Invasions, was one of the most disastrous periods of Korean history. Shortly after consolidating control of Japan, the great general Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade China in an attempt to become the ruler of all Asia. The easiest route to China cut through the Korean Peninsula. He asked the Korean king for help, or for unobstructed passage. As Korea had strong diplomatic relations with the Ming Dynasty, the king refused. To teach Korea a lesson, Japanese troops attacked Korea in April 1592 with their full military might. Although there had been voices in the Korean government calling for the strengthening of the military, the crown did not take note and Korea was virtually defenseless when Japan let loose its battle-hardened troops. Japanese troops pushed up to the capital in two weeks, forcing King Sonjo to flee. A few weeks later the Japanese were in P'yongyang. Except in a few fortified southern towns, Korean opposition consisted largely of hastily organized guerrilla troops led by local yangban. Against Japanese rifles (copies of Portuguese models, never before seen by Koreans), they resisted bravely with arrows, cannons, and explosives, but still lost nearly every encounter. Finally, following the arrival of a large Ming force to assist the Koreans, the Japanese slowly retreated to the south coast. Peace negotiations were held between the Chinese and Japanese, with no agreement; skirmishes continued until 1596. In 1597 there was a second great invasion, which the combined Korean and Chinese armies confined to the two southern provinces. Still, there was great loss of Korean life and property.

Korea's saving grace was its navy. As in 1592, 1597-98 saw many great naval victories for the Koreans. The kobukson was introduced and put to good use. It was a small, extremely maneuverable wooden warship roughly the shape of a turtle. Cannons were mounted on all sides, and spiked metal plates covered its humped top to discourage boarding. Moved by sail or oar, these ships could dart around and harass the larger and more ponderous Japanese boats. Led by Admiral Yi Sun-shin, the Korean navy crippled Japanese supply lines to the peninsula, sinking supply ships and troop carriers by the dozen. In 1598 Hideyoshi died and the Japanese decided to end the war and return home. During the last major sea battle in Nov. 1598, Admiral Yi was killed.

Throughout this conflict, the Japanese had raped, pillaged, and plundered. Crops were razed, buildings burned, movable treasures taken, and other objects destroyed. Korea lost a great portion of its most valuable cultural properties. The government was drastically weakened, the economy was in shambles, and famine resulted. Ming China also suffered loss and economic decline, which contributed to its downfall. Unfortunately for Korea, its troops also looted the country after the war on their return to China. Japan however, fared far better. Although it did not reach its goal of penetrating China, it boosted its economy and helped solidify the country under Hideyoshi's successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu. In retreat, the Japanese took many prisoners, including scholars, artisans, and craftsmen, and many religious and art objects and books. Because of what these reluctant emigres were able to teach the Japanese, the religious, cultural, and artistic currents of Japan were greatly enhanced during the following centuries. From the early 1600s, trade and occasional diplomatic exchanges were resumed and continued until the 1800s.