[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]A life of tears and regret for last Korean princessJan. 26, 1962
As a little girl, Princess Deokhye, having no idea what her life would one day be like, spent her days charming her father King Gojong and the rest of her family. Born in 1912, the king’s only daughter, the princess was the apple of the king’s eye. Once Korea had been formally annexed by Japan in 1910, King Gojong, dethroned by force in 1907, had little hope in his life; his baby princess was one of the few sights that could make him smile.
After King Gojong died in 1919, the princess was well cared for by his brother and successor, King Sunjong. But when she was 13, she was forced to leave her home; the Japanese colonial government made the entire royal family move to Tokyo, where they effectively became hostages.
Anticipating this, the royal family had already betrothed the princess to an aristocrat, but in vain. Princess Deokhye left for Tokyo, carried on the back of one of the ladies of the court, not knowing that she would be unable to return for decades.
Alone in a foreign land, the once-lively princess started to wither away. When her mother, a concubine known only by the surname Yang, died in 1929, the princess showed signs of a major nervous breakdown, which was diagnosed as schizophrenia. Once she had recovered somewhat, the Japanese government hastily arranged a marriage.
Alhough rumors in Korea had it that the princess was forced to marry a hunchbacked dwarf, she actually tied the knot in 1931 with Sho Takeyuki, son of the count of Tsusima Island. A baby girl, Masae, seemed to give the princess reason to live, but her happiness didn’t last long; more mental breakdowns followed. Eventually she was struck by aphasia; at times, she could not recognize her husband or her daughter.
While she was bedridden, Japan was defeated in World War II, and Korea was liberated. But this was not necessarily good news for the princess, who, by that point, had nothing to win back. There was no longer a Joseon Dynasty.
In 1948, her home country became a republic, and its first President, Syngman Rhee, did not like the idea of bringing the remaining members of the royal family back from Japan. Then came the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, which made her hopes of returning home all the dimmer. On top of all this, the princess was divorced in 1953.
Nor was this the end of her despair. Masae, the princess’s only daughter, committed suicide, drowning herself in the sea after an unsuccessful marriage.
For the princess, life had become too much to bear. She saw little to do but return to the place she once called home; her request, however, was denied by President Rhee’s administration. But after the 1961 military coup led by Park Chung Hee, the princess was finally allowed to come home. She arrived in Korea on this date.
The princess was taken to the Seoul National University hospital, where she remained bedridden for another decade and more. Her schizophrenia showed almost no signs of improving.
Eventually she left the hospital and moved into Changdeok Palace with Mrs. Lee Masako, the last crown princess, who had also returned from Japan.
Princess Deokhye was rarely seen again outside the palace. In the 1970s and the 1980s, as the country went through rapid economic development, coups d’etat, assassinations, a democracy movement and an Olympics, few people spared much thought for the aging princess from another era.
On April 21, 1989, short newspaper stories informed the public that Princess Deokhye’s life of tears and regret had ended. As her mental condition continued to deteriorate, she had contracted influenza, which led in turn to pneumonia and death. She was 77 years old.
by Chun Su-jin