The Joseon onesOne of the most dramatic life stories of the fallen Joseon royal family belongs to 76-year-old Lee Seok. He is the singer of “Dove House,” which became popular among older generations.
Aside from the brief popularity he enjoyed when he sang the song in 1969, his life has been full of turbulence. He failed in a number of business ventures and voluntarily joined the army to fight in the Vietnam War as an escape from financial troubles, only to be discharged due to injury. He then briefly lived illegally in the United States, worked odd jobs and attempted suicide due to family discord.
After the media reported on the miserable life of the last imperial descendant, the grandson of Emperor Gojong and son of King Uichin, the Lee clan of Jeonju, North Jeolla, offered to help. The city allowed him to stay in Seunggwangjae, a house in a traditional Korean village. Lee now works as a cultural commentator and lecturer of history in the city.
The daughter of King Uichin, Lee Hae-won, now 100 years old, lives in poverty, relying on government subsidies in a slum in Hanam, Gyeonggi. Her house is currently under redevelopment. She must be the oldest surviving member of the royal family, yet lives in rental housing with her septuagenarian son.
Julia Lee was the last crown princess of the Joseon Dynasty and passed away in a nursing home in Hawaii at age 94. The daughter-in-law of King Yeongchin, she left Korea in 1995 because her family and government did not offer help. She was in frail health and did not find Korea’s welfare system for senior citizens comfortable.
After returning to Hawaii, she wished to meet her “beloved Koo,” but it did not come to be. When she tried to go to the funeral of Lee Koo, her former husband, in 2005, the funeral committee did not allow her attendance. It is all the more sad because after she finalized her divorce with Lee Koo in 1982, she had told the press that she loved Korea and wished to live here.
For over 70 years since liberation, the royal family of Joseon has been considered a “past ill” by the democratic republic of South Korea and the antifeudal ideology of North Korea. The fledgling government of South Korea did not allow the participation of former royal family members like King Yeongchin, who was taken hostage by Japan during the occupation, because the descendants of Emperor Gojong might become political rivals.
Repossession of assets and evictions were common. Cases of incompetency and division during the Joseon Dynasty, including the struggle between Empress Myeongseong and Regent Heungseon during the dynasty’s late period, were highlighted.
While the Joseon Dynasty cannot avoid the original sin of becoming prey to Japan’s pillaging of Korean sovereignty, it was harsh to abandon members of the royal family, who lacked financial stability in the wake of the division, the Korean War and rapid social changes during the development-driven era of Park Chung Hee. After Park’s regime ended, the Nakseonjae in Changdeok Palace was offered as a residence for female members of the Joseon household, including Lee Bang-ja, Princess Deokhye and Julia Lee.
While Koreans take pride in the “Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” chronicling 519 years under 27 kings, the royal family and their descendants have been treated poorly after liberation. It stands in contrast to the respect that the Japanese royal family enjoys in Japan even after tremendous pain to the Japanese people and their neighbors during World War II.
We’ve seen this a lot. An organizational culture of ignoring the accomplishments of predecessors, a corporate culture where tacit knowledge can hardly accumulate, where political retaliation and clearing of past ills are repeated with every change in government hands. It might be in our DNA to associate the past as an object of reform.
Just like artists whose works become more expensive after death, the members of the Joseon royal family get more attention after they pass away. Princess Deokhye, King Yeongchin, Lee Bang-ja and Lee Koo are such cases. But they are soon forgotten.
Will Julia Lee follow that path? During her last days in Hawaii, she often said that she wanted to be buried in Korea.
But instead, her ashes were scattered across the Pacific Ocean.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 9, Page 30
*The author is chief executive of JoongAng Design Works.