Considering how the country proudly advertises a history of 5,000 years and despite the fact that a tenth of that history belongs to the Joseon Dynasty, those who dream of restoring at least a fraction of the past glory are surprised by how little interest the government has shown for such efforts. “There are royal descendants still alive but nobody cares,” complained Koh Min-hui, an official of the Imperial House Culture Foundation. Lee Won said that he has been contacting government officials at the Culture Ministry but the reception his idea has received has been lukewarm at best.
What one Culture Ministry official said reflects the harsh reality that royal descendants are facing: “It would take a lot of time and money to establish some sort of centralized body. I don’t see that happening with so much other work at hand,” said the official, declining to be named.
In the 1950s, the Rhee administration attached possessions of the royal house to the National Treasury. Rhee, the first president of the republic, had ample time to cement power and viewed the royal house as a threat to such efforts. A special committee in charge of royal assets, which included vast swaths of real estate, sold the possessions under the pretext of securing funds to protect cultural assets. Scholars say that the government’s systematic approach left nothing.
“Land was very cheaply sold to people close to President Syngman Rhee and the following administrations were afraid that digging up such shady deals would open a Pandora’s box,” said Ahn Cheon, a history professor at Seoul National University of Education. A suspicious fire in 1960 at Changgyeong Palace, home of the special committee, erased all records of the royal assets, making it impossible to trace anything that still might be out there. The police failed to catch anyone connected to the fire.
For some time, royal descendants lived on government-provided stipends. Until the administration of Park Chung Hee, some descendants were even allowed to live in parts of the royal palace. However, in 1979, Chun Doo-hwan forced out all royals still living in the palaces after seizing power in a coup d’etat. It is thought that many moved abroad to the United States or South America, where they still live today.
“The military police came and shipped us out in trucks. Our last shred of dignity was taken away,” said Lee Seok, who still remembers that day vividly.
After majoring in Spanish in college, Yi earned a living by singing. He became known as the Singing Prince, performing such songs as "Tonight" from "West Side Story" on U.S. military bases. He went to South Vietnam to entertain South Korean troops and suffered a shoulder injury, he said, when his convoy was attacked. Back home, his singing career reached its peak in 1967 with "Nest of Doves," a song about domestic bliss: "If you're as intimate as doves, then build the kind of home where you'll be entwined in love."
Known to this day by every South Korean, the song became a staple at weddings. Yi boasts that he has performed at 7,000 of them, though his success displeased his family. "A prince has become a clown," an aunt told Yi, who then gave up performing.
In Los Angeles, Yi Seok lived the ups and downs of an immigrant with few marketable skills. He worked as a gardener. He cleaned pools in Beverly Hills. In a marriage of convenience, he paid $15,000, he said, to a Korean-American woman for a Las Vegas wedding and a green card.
Together, they ran Eddy's Liquor Store, where Yi greeted customers with, "Gimme five, man!"
Lee returned to Korea in 1989 and moved around living in a temple, his car and various bath houses until 2003 when after a rather embarrasing article in The Weekly Chosun titled "Last Prince Yi Seok Sojourning in Chimchil-Bang", the city of Jeonju contacted him and has since employed him as a University lecturer. Lee Seok has gone on to publish a book about his family's ceremonial rites and has agreed to host a tv series on Korean royal history called "A personal view of Korea" (source). A slightly happier ending for one of the royal family. Hopefully the Korean government will come to its senses and realise how profitable cooperation with the remaining members of the royal family could be.