A reminder of a royal past
The last Joseon Dynasty crown prince may be distant, but his heart is in Korea
The last crown prince of the Joseon Dynasty has lived in Japan most of his life, can’t speak Korean and used English to conduct an interview with a Korean reporter.
But when asked whether he considers himself to be Korean, Lee Gu firmly nodded and said, “Yes,” without hesitation. When he dies, he said, he wants to be buried here in Korea, next to his parents.
The reclusive crown prince, who is 73, does not open up to most Koreans and shuns contact with the Korean media. He finally agreed to an interview with the JoongAng Daily, after rejecting repeated requests for two years, while he was in Seoul last weekend for the royal shrine ritual, which is held every first Sunday in May, to pay his respects to his ancestors.
Lee Gu now resides in a small apartment in the Shibuya area of Tokyo, living off a subsidy from the Lee family organization in Korea.
“Whenever I think of Lee Gu and his fate, I get teary-eyed,” says Lee Jung-jae, a secretary general of the Lee family organization, which also takes care of him when he’s in Seoul. For his visits, the group provides Lee Gu a tiny yet decent house, supplied with eggs and fruit jam in a refrigerator, as well as a toaster and bread, so that he can fix himself a simple breakfast.
Last weekend, however, Lee Gu was accorded the honor due the crown prince’s position. On a rainy Sunday, he woke up early to dress in the royal outfit for the parade, which started around noon from Gwanghwamun of Gyeongbok Palace, during which he would go through Jongno to Jongmyo, the royal shrine, on a palanquin.
His waiting room inside the palace was reserved for the Lee family only. A few members of the Lee family organization were present, and they were busy taking pictures with the last heir of the Joseon Dynasty crown.
He was carried on a palanquin by several young men in Joseon Dynasty costume down a street in central Seoul to stop in front of Jongmyo, the royal shrine, drawing curious looks from passers-by. Once they realized who he was, they said, “There he is, His Highness!” and started taking pictures.
At the shrine, Mr. Lee honored his ancestors, the kings of the Joseon Dynasty, who began their rule in 1392. In the ceremonial dress and hat fit for a king, Mr. Lee moved with a certain grace and bore a look of solemnity as he followed the old customs handed down from the dynasty’s court rules.
Once the palanquin arrived at Jongmyo shrine, Lee Gu found shelter inside, which was off-limits to the public. There, he granted a brief interview.
Asked whether he has any sense of loss when he sees other monarchies beloved by their people, such as in England or in Japan, Lee Gu says with a smile, “I have no regrets.”
But then he adds, “As a member of the family, I feel that I should inherit the culture. I’m doing this [the Jongmyo ceremony] for the benefit of Korea.”
A longtime Tokyo resident, Mr. Lee visits Korea four times a year on special occasions for the Lee family. As the crown prince of the dynasty, Mr. Lee must carry out certain duties in family affairs, which includes the annual sacrificial rites for ancestors, which is registered as a World Cultural Property by Unesco.
The Jeonju Lee Royal Family Organization invites Mr. Lee every year for the ceremony, as he would be king if the royal court were reinstated. About five members of the royal family are reportedly still alive, residing in Korea, Japan and the United States, but among them, Mr. Lee is the only authentic heir to the crown.
Born of Lee Eun and Masako Nashimotomiya in 1931 in Japan, Mr. Lee spent the vast majority of his life outside Korea because of Japanese colonial rulers who sought to undermine the royal family by forcing his father to live in Japan.
When Lee Eun’s brother, Korean Emperor Sunjong, died in 1926, Lee Eun became King Yeongchin, but he was king in name only. Then the Japanese colonial government arranged his marriage with Masako Nashimotomiya, a close relative of the Japanese emperor.
Rumor had it that Ms. Nashimotomiya was originally supposed to marry the Japanese crown prince, but the court medical doctors declared that she would be unable to bear children. Some Korean historians say that her marriage to King Yeongchin was a part of a Japanese plan to end the Lee family line.
However, Ms. Nashimotomiya, who changed her name to Lee Bang-ja, gave birth to two sons. Lee Jin, the first child, however, died the year he was born under suspicious circumstances. Some Korean historians believe the baby was poisoned. Lee Gu managed to avoid the fate of his brother and grew up speaking Japanese.
With the help of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, Lee Gu moved to the United States at age 14 and later studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Then he worked in New York as an architect, where he fell in love with an American woman, Julia Mullock. The two tied the knot in 1958, but divorced in 1982.
Long wait to return home
Even after Korea achieved liberation from Japan in 1945, the Lees were not welcome to return. Then-President Syngman Rhee had no interest in handing any power back to the royal family, and Korea and Japan didn’t reopen diplomatic ties until the 1960s.
Being neither Japanese nor Korean citizens, King Yeongchin’s family lived in Japan in poverty. The king used to murmur, “I’m neither Korean nor Japanese by now. My life after all is nothing but floating somewhere in between the two.”
They eventually returned to Seoul, in 1963. When then-President Park Chung Hee offered to let other members of the family live in Nakseonjae inside Changdeok Palace, Lee Gu went with them with his wife.
But King Yeongchin developed cerebral thrombosis, which accompanied aphasia. He died in 1970, and soon after that, Lee Gu left Korea. His mother stayed behind and died in 1989, buried next to her husband in Korea.
Lee Gu, meanwhile, started a number of architecture-related businesses that ended up failing. Having endured the double talk of those who wanted only to take advantage of Lee Gu’s title as the last heir to the royal throne, he became bitter.
According to a member of the Lee family organization, Lee Gu used to say “Everyone [in Korea] is a thief.”
Lee Gu returned to Korea in 1996, and declared his intention to stay for good, but eventually, he left again for Japan, returning only since then to fulfill his duties as the Joseon Dynasty crown prince.
He tries to stay out of the political fray. Regarding the post-war turmoil of modern-day Korea, Lee Gu said, “I don’t really care about politics,” with a dignified smile. “But I think we should thank the U.S. for assisting Korea.”
As for the future of the Korean Peninsula, he said he hopes for the reunification of North and South, but “in a peaceful way, not through a war.”
His expression brightened considerably when he was asked to share his memories of his parents, King Yeongchin and Queen Masako.
However, after pausing for a few seconds, the media-shy crown prince smiled and said, “I have so many memories, but I’d like to keep them inside my heart,” putting his hand to his chest. The interview ended so he could attend the ceremony.
The drizzle stopped by the time the ceremony ended. After paying his respects at his parents’ graves, Lee Gu went back home to Tokyo on Tuesday to live among the masses.
by Chun Su-jin