[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Star-crossed royal couple lived two separate livesOct. 20, 1897
Lee Eun, crown prince of the Joseon Dynasty, and Min Gap-wan, daughter of a high-ranking court official, seemed to be a match made in heaven. The two were born on this same date, and Ms. Min was selected as a crown princess by the court. Fate, however, was not so kind. In the real world, where the Joseon Dynasty was ebbing away, they were star-crossed, never once meeting in person. Prince Lee never assumed the throne, and was the last crown prince of the dynasty when Japan colonized Korea in 1910. Ms. Min also followed a hapless route to the end, living a lonely and destitute life.
It was in 1907 that Prince Lee’s mother, Queen Eom, selected Ms. Min to be crown princess to her son. Bride and groom had just turned 10, an age that made them eligible for marriage proposals back then. The queen took the initiative. The Min family had high standing; the family had produced Queen Myeongseong, who was assassinated by the Japanese in 1895, and Min Yeong-hwan, a patriot who had committed suicide upon the signing of the treaty in 1905 that approved Japan’s colonial rule. All this made the young Ms. Min a good candidate for crown princess in the eyes of Queen Eom, who was seeking anti-Japanese influence in the court, feeling uneasy about the security of her country since the 1905 treaty. Plus, Ms. Min herself was lively, smart and pretty.
Following court tradition, Queen Eom sent the Mins a gold ring wrapped in green and red satin, with “engagement ring” written in calligraphy on one of the cloths. The messenger who brought the ring said that this was unofficial, but that the court would soon go through the necessary formalities once the political situation was more settled.
The formalities, however, were never completed. Japan totally and officially colonized Korea in 1910, and Queen Eom died a year later. The colonial government sent Prince Lee to Tokyo in 1907 soon after the engagement was made, insisting that he should see the larger world if he were to be a king some day. But this was only an excuse to have a hostage. Prince Lee was forced to do many things against his will, which included getting engaged to a Japanese court lady, Masako Nashimotomiya, and attending a Japanese military academy. Except for a short visit to Korea in 1911 for his mother’s funeral, the crown prince spent most of his time in Tokyo.
Ms. Min, in the meantime, was a forgotten figure, but her royal engagement was nothing that she herself could forget. One night in 1918, Ms. Min had a nightmare in which an eagle snatched a rooster from a hen in her garden. The year 1897, when both Ms. Min and the crown prince were born, happened to be the year of the chicken. Several days later, court ladies sent by the colonial government visited her house and asked her to return the engagement ring.
This would confirm the breaking of the engagement, and the request was a shock for Ms. Min, who had remained faithful to the promise for 10 years. For 14 days, the Mins resisted returning the ring, but finally gave in.
Thus began years of suffering for Ms. Min, who refused all her life to marry, even as she read about her former fiance having a son with the Japanese court lady in Tokyo. At home, Ms. Min was feeling more and more insecure; she went to Shanghai, where she spent hard times all by herself, spending most of her time knitting and reading.
Independent activists based in Shanghai tried to enlist her in the movement, but Ms. Min would only say, “Everything is my destiny. I don’t bear grudges against anybody. I don’t have any plans to seek revenge.” She refused several marriage proposals, which was her own kind of independence movement.
After the long-awaited liberation from colonial rule in 1945, Ms. Min came back home only to endure the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, then seeing Prince Lee coming back home as well with his own family in 1963, to a country that no longer needed a king. Ms. Min and the crown prince had still never met when they died ―Ms. Min in 1968, the prince in 1970.
by Chun Su-jin