SEOUL — One of Korea’s last princes lives out of a two-seat van packed with books, laundry and a microwave oven. He used to sing at nightclubs for American soldiers and sleep in flophouses.
Yet he is so proud of his bloodline that he never takes off his clothes in a public bathhouse when others are around.
Now, Yi Seok, 62, is pursuing a one-man crusade to restore the lost dignity of his ancestral Yi dynasty family, which ruled the Korean Peninsula for 518 years until colonial Japan took over in 1910.
“If I die, there will be no one left to tell the stories of the last royal family,” he said.
South Korea is proud of its heritage, which includes the invention of the Korean alphabet during the Yi dynasty. Historical dramas about romance and bloody coups at the ancient royal court are TV staples. At the old royal palaces in Seoul, tourists watch a changing of the royal guard and court music performances.
But few in South Korea know the names or whereabouts of relatives of the last Yi king.
Koreans accuse the dynasty’s last rulers of incompetence and blame them for Korea’s humiliating 35-year subjugation by the Japanese.
“I am aware of the criticism,” said Mr. Yi. “But with all its achievements and failures, the royal family deserves better treatment.”
Although a few hard-core supporters argue for South Korea to switch to a monarchy, Mr. Yi considers such demands unrealistic. Instead, he believes the government should let him live in a palace — “at least as a tourist attraction.”
The government is not considering the idea, citing public skepticism.
Mr. Yi also wants to build a museum where people can learn about the dress, food and rules of etiquette at the royal court.
Four years ago, he established a National Federation for Preserving the Great Korean Royal Court — an organization that operates mainly out of his van. He runs a Web site and claims thousands of members who are asked to pay at least 1,000 won a month, or about 85 cents.
A member recently wrote: “Your Highness, I have always wondered about you. … Now that I know you are alive, I am brimming with tears of happiness.”
“Some people call me crying,” Mr. Yi said. “An 80-year-old man called me the other day, offering to come up to Seoul just to bow before me.”