- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

SEOUL — ”I don’t care about that anymore,” said the elderly Korean man in a nearly inaudible voice after being asked about the role of the United States in deposing his family.

“I only want to say thank you to America for helping Korea,” he said.

It was early this month when the Yi Dynasty — which ruled the Korean Peninsula from the 14th century to the 20th — paid homage to its dead. Yi Gu, 73, sat in a small unlit room in Chongmyo (also rendered as Jongmyo) Shrine, where carved wooden tablets name his ancestors and convey their teachings. The shrine was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1995.

Mr. Yi wore black silk with a golden dragon coiled along the wide sleeve. If Korea were still a monarchy, he would be its king. His family history is long. A hundred years before explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, Mr. Yi’s ancestor, Yi Taejo, overthrew the Koryo Dynasty and seized power.

In 1910, with traditional protector China in disarray and Russia on the move in East Asia, Korea was annexed by Japan. The last Korean king to rule, Gojong — Mr. Yi’s grandfather — was forced to abdicate. His mentally handicapped son, Sunjong, was put on the throne as a puppet until his death in 1926.

Japan, also a monarchy since the 1868 overthrow of the shoguns and restoration of its emperors, maintained the Korean royal line. Mr. Yi’s father, Yi Un, was married to Japan’s Princess Masako in 1920. The couple had children, and the Yi royal line continued in Japan.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, the United States took control of the southern half of Korea as the Soviet Union took over the north.

American generals ruled the south until 1948, when the Republic of Korea was

formed with Syngman Rhee as its first president. Establishment of the republic effectively abolished Korea’s monarchy.

Yi Gu was carried to Chongmyo this month in a palanquin, part of a royal re-enactment that wended through the concrete canyons of central Seoul.

Visitors at the starting point, Gyeongbok Palace, saw high school students don polyester guardsmen’s uniforms and wear goatees and mustaches applied by makeup artists. The cavalry, in Mongol-style armor, came from the Seoul Racing Association. The palanquins were wheeled, not carried.

But at the center was the real thing: Yi Gu, looking neither right not left, his expression impassive. One couldn’t tell what he thought of the production, but the volunteers dressed as royal bodyguards clearly considered it an honor. One was a lieutenant general, another the director of the national Independence Hall of Korea. And though Korea is a republic, many along the route kept asking, “Where’s the king?”

When the parade reached Chongmyo, Mr. Yi was guided up the tiled path that winds through the grounds. In a solemn rite, he paid respects to his ancestors’ spirits. Just before the ceremony, he granted The Washington Times a short interview, his first in recent years.

A quiet man with a pale, somewhat sad face, he lives in a small apartment in Tokyo, on a stipend supplied by the Yi Family Association. Why is he in Seoul? “I come back four times a year [for ceremonial purposes]. I feel I should inherit this culture. I do it for the Yi family, and for Seoul.”

The South Korean capital sponsored the May 2 parade as part of a spring festival for tourists.

Mr. Yi has lived in the United States and was married to an American, Julia Mullock — Princess Julia — but the couple divorced in 1982. He speaks little Korean, but said: “I consider myself Korean. When I die, I will be buried here with my ancestors.”

Could Korea’s royal house ever be restored? “I don’t think of that at all.”

But Yi Gu is not the only royal descendant. Another family member — Yi Seok, 65, son of King Gojong’s second son — is more outspoken, and blue blood doesn’t stop him from seeing red.

“I was born and grew up in a mansion,” he said, and unlike his cousin, he was raised in Korea. “At elementary school, ladies-in-waiting bought me lunches of royal cuisine. I was not allowed to do sports. The school principal ran in my place.” But life changed dramatically for the young prince.

“General [Douglas] Mac- Arthur let the Japanese keep their monarchy, but President Syngman Rhee did not want that in Korea. He nationalized all royal assets. Overnight, we became poor. We did not know how to live as citizens, how to make money. The family considered suicide.”

The younger Mr. Yi tried later to enlist his cousin, who as official heir was invited in 1963 to live in a small palace compound, to join a demonstration to keep the royal buildings. Yi Gu declined.

Though he had hoped to be a diplomat, the penniless Yi Seok took work as a crooner on U.S. military bases in South Korea, becoming known as the “Singing Prince.”

He served as a military entertainer for two years with the ROK Tiger Division in Vietnam, and later enjoyed moderate success with a pop song, “Pigeon’s House.” But he fell on hard times, and was reduced to sleeping in Seoul’s public bathhouses.

He was discovered in one last year by a reporter who recognized him, and the story became news. Today, he lives in a traditional compound made available by the city of Jeonju, ancestral home of the Yi family.

He is scathing about Koreans’ lack of interest in their royal past.

While Yi Seok was being interviewed in Seoul’s Deoksu Palace for this article, two passing students sought to interview a Westerner as part of their English homework. They showed no interest when told that the Korean with him was a grandson of the palace’s last resident, King Gojong.

“I would like to write to the 41 countries with monarchies and tell them there are still royals in Korea. I would like to see a return to a symbolic monarchy,” Yi Seok said. He sighed. “But it’s just an idea. My favorite song is ‘Impossible Dream.’”

Restoration of the monarchy is not on Korea’s agenda, but some sympathize. “We cannot criticize [the royal descendants],” said Yi Jung-jae, secretary-general of the Yi Family Association. “They are victims of history.”

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