In A Nutshell
Korea has a tragic history of being a bit player among more powerful actors on the world scene. The deposed Korean royal family personifies this situation, particularly in the life course of the current heir, Yi Seok. Often living a life of poverty and wandering, he failed to get recognition for his familial legacy until recently. Now he wants to ensure the world doesn’t forget the fallen Joseon dynasty.
Note: The above photo shows some of Yi Seok’s ancestors in 1918.
The Whole Bushel
It was 2004. Yi Seok was an older Korean man living out of his van when a journalist found him. For the better part of a decade, he was homeless, often sleeping overnight in public bathhouses. He was a man who had fallen on hard times. Yi Seok, however, wasn’t just an ordinary Korean man; he was an heir to the long vacant Joseon throne. How he had gone from living in a palace as a boy to living on the streets is a journey that many would find hard to believe.
When Prince Yi Seok was born in 1941, the world was in turmoil. World War II was raging, and Korea was under the domination of the Japanese. Japan had effectively deposed the Korean royal family in 1910 after colonizing the country the same year. Still, the Japanese government allowed the royal family to live in the palaces, although they stripped much of the wealth of the family during the war.
After the defeat of Japan, the royal family probably thought they would receive relief from their dire situation, but the dawn of the Cold War prevented improvement in their situation. The northern half of the country became communist, while the military strongman and anticommunist Syngman Rhee ruled the southern half. With the family kicked out of their palaces, the communists seized their wealth in the north, while South Korea nationalized the remainder of their assets. Young Yi Seok and his family had to live in a monastery during the Korean War.
Yi Seok desired a new start when he entered later Hankook University of Foreign Studies. He studied various subjects so that he could eventually enter the diplomatic corps. Unfortunately, South Korea was so unstable at this point that he was not to attain his goal. Coups rocked the government, and the country had a lower GDP than its communist antagonist, North Korea. Thus Yi Seok began his wandering years.
He knew that his family had little money, so he began working odd jobs to support them. He realized that he enjoyed entertaining people and that he had a good singing voice, so he became a popular crooner in South Korea, even getting one of his songs to top the national charts. Still, as the 1960s progressed, his wanderlust grew and he decided to join the Korean army as the country had decided to join the US and Australia in fighting the Vietnam War. He served in many engagements before a land mine that his convoy truck drove over wounded his shoulder with shrapnel. During the war, he was able to continue his entertainment career by singing to fellow troops when requested.
After the war, his singing career became a bust, although the family fortunes as a whole improved for a short while. The government allowed Yi Seok and his family to return to a few of the palaces. The unstable nature of South Korea changed things again. After the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979, the military told the family that they had to get out of the residences again, with the government taking whatever remained of the family’s assets.
The next decade held some of the darkest times for Yi Seok. In order to provide for his family, he illegally immigrated to the US, where he worked in various menial positions. He cleaned pools, served as a security guard, and even operated a liquor store, which criminals robbed multiple times. Discouraged by his experience and lonely due to the separation from his kin, he traveled back to South Korea, where he also had difficulty making a living. He even tried living in one of the palaces, which had become a historical site, but guards continually kicked him out. When he returned to the US for another start, things reached a breaking point when he lost the majority of his possessions during the LA riots. He finally decided that South Korea was his home, even if he didn’t have a home within the country, and lived from place to place until a reporter found him.
Today, Yi Seok has a home, which the mayor of the royal family’s ancestral town offered to him. He also has a stable job as a professor, lecturing about Korean history and culture. He is still sad that most contemporary Korean people care little about the deposed monarchy, but he hopes that his newfound security will help restore the monarchy as a ceremonial position.
Show Me The Proof
Feature photo via Wikipedia
The Economist: 20th Century Boy
Reuters: Prince hopes to bring monarchy back to S. Korea
Washington Post: Discovering Korea’s imperial past
South China Morning Post: Seoul’s forgotten royals: a tale of princes and paupers
LA Times: Korean Prince Not Getting the Royal Treatment