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SOUTH Korea’s royal prince cuts a handsome dash as he glides through the streets of this ancient city of Jeonju, traditional Korean robes flapping in the breeze.
He is down-to-earth and friendly and shakes hands and poses for group photographs if asked.
“ ‘Your highness’, they say. I say ‘Stop. No! No!’” says Yi Seok with a quick smile and the slightly puzzled look of someone surprised by the hand that fate has dealt him.
From anointed prince to Buddhist monk, from pop singer to homeless vagrant, the last royal son of the Chosun dynasty still living in South Korea has led a varied life whose ups and downs mirror Korea’s own turbulent recent history of war and poverty, wealth and industrialisation.
Around Asia, many countries, like Japan, Thailand and Cambodia, have held fast to their royal families, seen by their people as anchors of stability in a changing world.
For the Japanese, the royal household is the most important symbol of Japan to have survived defeat in World War II. In Cambodia, the royal family is widely credited with holding the country together through the horrors of rule by the Khmer Rouge. And in Thailand, the king is revered as a force for stability and progress.
But other parts of Asia, countries like Laos, South Korea and its great neighbour China, have seen royal families overthrown or cast aside by colonial powers or revolutionary regimes and rarely look back to what they have lost.
Yi, 63, sees himself as perhaps South Korea’s last link through the events of the last century to a past that many Koreans have turned their back on.
“The dynasty probably ends with me,” he says of the royal house that ruled for more than 500 years from 1392 until it was overthrown by Japanese colonial occupiers in 1910.
An uncle who is recognised as the crown prince of the Chosun household is 75, childless, lives in Japan and cannot speak Korean. Yi has two younger brothers and a son and two daughters who live in the United States. None has shown any interest in the royal succession.
“The children don’t care. ‘Come and join us in America’, they keep telling me,” Yi says in an interview in Jeonju where the royal house traces its origins.
Today, Yi lives alone and largely unnoticed in a traditional Korean house in an old quarter of this city. “Some of the old folks know who I am,” he says. “The young ones don’t.”
Ten minutes by foot from his home is a shrine to the founder of the Chosun dynasty and an ancient pavilion where royal records were placed for safekeeping during a 16th century invasion by the Japanese.
Proud of a history they trace back thousands of years, most Koreans are uneasy about the Chosun dynasty’s heritage.
Though period dramas about court intrigue are TV staples, the dying agony of the dynasty under the heel of the Japanese, who ruled the country from 1910-1945, still rankles with Koreans who blame the Chosun elite for failing to modernise the country in time to prevent it being overrun.
“I am very proud, though I understand the criticism” says Yi.
He notes that one of the great Chosun rulers, the 15th century King Sejong, created Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Until then Koreans used Chinese characters to write their own language.
And he says that for centuries Korea lived in peace under benign rulers who valued scholarship above warfare and promoted artistic and literary endeavour.
But he admits the country’s rulers turned their backs on the outside world, leading Korea to be known as the Hermit Kingdom until, by the end of the 19th century, western and Asian powers were competing for influence in the region and Korea became a strategic prize.
“At that time, Korea had no power and we were small,” says Yi. “We could not stand up to the big powers.” Yi’s grandfather, King Kojong, Korea’s last reigning monarch, presided over the country before its collapse under Japanese rule.
Yi, who remembers a royal palace childhood living in splendour, surrounded by servants and ladies-in-waiting, was born when Korea was occupied by the Japanese, who stripped the ruling house of all power.
After liberation in 1945, the dynasty’s wealth and property including five palaces were confiscated by the new republic established under Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president.
The dynasty was effectively destroyed and Yi reckons his family lost land and property worth US$1.5bil at the time and considerably more now.
“A restoration could have worked then,” says Yi wistfully. “The Chosun dynasty could have survived. But that is no longer true. A restoration is out of the question now. The young really couldn’t care less.”
Times grew harder when Rhee was ousted in a military coup in 1960 and Park Chung-Hee took power, tightening the screws on the royal family. Worse followed with Park’s 1979 assassination and the rise to power of another military coup leader, Chun Doo-Hwan.
Prior to Chun’s takeover, Yi had studied foreign languages at a top Seoul university and hoped to become a diplomat but after the first coup in 1960, the flow of money to the royals was stopped and his hopes were not met.
To pay his way, from his freshman year in 1960 Yi took up singing at bars and night clubs, and was popular on US military bases. His popularity soared with the late 1960s hit ballad House of Doves. Members of the royal family were upset. Under the Chosun dynasty, entertainers belonged to the lower rungs of society.
From 1966 to 1969, Yi fought in the Vietnam War with the South Korean Tiger Division, sent there by then-president Park in an effort to solidify relations with the United States. He was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel.
Years of entertaining, drinking and womanising followed. Then life took a turn for the worse again when then-president Park was assassinated in 1979 and the new president Chun kicked the royal family out of its palace in Seoul.
Yi, homeless and penniless, emigrated to the United States where he worked for 10 years as a day labourer, handyman and security guard.
He returned home for the funeral in Seoul of Korea’s last queen, his aunt, in 1989, and embarked on a spell of homeless wandering, trying to revive his singing career and living out of a minivan.
The collapse of his third marriage in 1999 coincided with the recognition that nightclubs no longer wanted an ageing crooner.
“I was nothing. I had nothing. Life was nothing,” he says.
Suffering at different times from depression, he has made a total of eight failed suicide attempts in his life and at one point lost several years to whiskey-induced amnesia.
But then he stopped drinking, stubbed out his last cigarette and decided to change. “I shaved my head and prayed for two years on the top of a mountain,” and became a Buddhist monk, he says.
With peace of mind restored, he returned to mainstream life and to Jeonju, the home of his ancestors 240km south of Seoul.
With his sharp features and trim figure, Yi today looks the part of the royal prince and has overcome his problems, as his country has moved to democracy, found peace and developed as a wealthy Asian nation.
He has stopped blaming himself for the sins of his fathers and the failure of the dynasty and found a purpose in his own life.
“No more tears, no more sorrow. I am happy,” he says. His ambition is to establish a museum to one of the world’s longest-ruling royal houses.
On a tour to promote his idea last year, he came to this ancient city where local officials were ready to listen.
They built a traditional Korean house for him in a picturesque corner of the city where old-style Korean homes with wooden frames and tiled roofs were being renovated.
Yi has guestrooms and visitors who want to experience a slice of traditional Korea can come and stay. An old-style teahouse is under construction next door.
And he, himself, has become a living museum, with a unique story to tell.
“It is an interesting story, and I am the only one left who can tell it,” Yi says. – AFP
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