Friday, May 06, 2011

What Became of Korea's Royal Family?

Dear Korean,

I am British and although this hasn't been on the news much you may have heard we are about to celebrate a Royal Wedding. Although I suppose that you will probably find the whole thing ridiculous (It isn't, the kitsch provides excellent presents for American Friends and Relatives) I was wondering whether you could explain the current status of the Korean Monarchy (ie, what has happened to them since they were overthrown after Korea's independence from Japan) and the general attitude towards them.

Her Majesty's Subject.

It has been more than a week since the royal wedding, but the Korean still has not stopped crying...

NOT! Are you kidding? As a proud American, American media's dotage upon the royal wedding appalled the Korean. The Korean means no offense to Her Majesty's Subject, and he wishes the newly married couple well as he wishes for every newlyweds. But regardless, didn't Americans fight a war or something to get away from the British royal family and its shindigs? George Washington must have been spinning in his grave last weekend.

You are committing treason, OK! Magazine.

But this is an interesting point, so let's dive in. As most people know, Imperial Japan annexed Korean Empire in 1910. In 1945, Korea re-emerged as two sovereign states, neither of which had a king. Then what happened with Korea's royal family? The fate that befell on his family was perhaps not as severe as those Koreans died in forced labor or were mobilized into forced prostitution, but it is a tremendously sad and tragic reflection of the decline and fall of Korea in the early 20th century. Let's travel back four generations.

First Generation: Emperor Gwangmu

We go back four generations because the demise of Korea's royal family arguably starts in 1907. While Korea officially disappeared in 1910, in practicality Korea lost is sovereignty in 1905, when the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 was entered into. Under the treaty, Korea became Japan's "protectorate," and lost the ability to conduct its own foreign affairs. A governor from Japan was sent to Korea to conduct Korea's foreign affairs instead. It goes without saying that the treaty was not entered into in a fair manner -- dozens of armed Japanese soldiers were staring down the emperor and the officials when the treaty was signed.

Emperor Gwangmu

Emperor Gwangmu (also known as Gojong) of Korea could plainly see where this was going. Although the 1905 Treaty stripped his ability to conduct foreign affairs, the emperor sent secret envoys to 17 major powers, including United Kingdom, France and Germany, to protest the forcible signing of the 1905 Treaty. The highlight of this effort was in 1907, when three Korean envoys were sent to the Second International Peace Convention at the Hague. Although Japan froze out the envoys from attending the convention, Yi Wi-Jong, one of the three envoys, managed to give a speech imploring for help in a separate conference. (The speech fell on deaf ears.)

The three secret envoys to the Hague: 
Yi Sang-Seol, Yi Joon, Yi Wi-Jong

Although the emperor's efforts did not create any result, Imperial Japan did not take kindly to Emperor Gwangmu's extracurricular activity, and demanded that he abdicate his throne. The emperor acquiesced, giving way to his son, Emperor Yunghui (also known as Soonjong) -- who would become the last emperor of Korean Empire.  Former Emperor Gwangmu died in 1919. Although this is not certain, there are ample indications that he was poisoned.

More after the jump.

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Second Generation:  Emperor Yunghui, King Euichin, King Yeongchin, Princess Deokhye

Emperor Gwangmu had 13 children, but only four survived into adulthood -- three sons and a daughter. And they were survivors in the truest sense. Even as the empire was in precipitous decline, the palace intrigue did not stop. Emperor Gwangmu's oldest son, born from his third wife, is rumored to have been poisoned by Empress Myeongseong, the emperor's main wife. The second son, born from Empress Myeongseong, died young. The Emperor's father may have poisoned him. The crown prince -- the third son who would become Emperor Yunghui-- was also poisoned in his youth, but barely survived. It was rumored that because of the lingering effects of the poisoning, the crown prince did not have full mental capacity.

The last royal family. From the left: King Euichin, Emperor Yunghui, 
King Yeongchin, Emperor Gwangmu, with Princess Deokhye in front

In 1910, Emperor Yunghui signed over his empire to Imperial Japan, ending the 600-year dynasty headed by his family. Emperor Yunghui was demoted to a king, subordinate to the Japanese emperor. Korea's royal family as a whole became Japanese nobility. The policy of Imperial Japan toward Korea's royal family was clear: the royal family will be either assimilated or killed. The first to go was the Emperor Gwangmu, as described above. Emperor Yunghui did not last much longer -- he died in 1926, at age 53.

Perhaps the most interesting figure in this drama is Yi Gang (also known as King Euichin,) second surviving son of Gwangmu. Yi Gang studied in Roanoke College in Virginia and was an officer of Korean imperial military when his older brother signed over the empire. Yi Gang silently assisted Korea's independence movement, signing petitions and sending funds to support Korean independence fighters and schools. He attempted to flee Korea and join the provisional government in Shanghai, but was arrested in the process and lost his nobility status. Since then, he evaded Imperial Japan's surveillance by engaging in profuse boozing and whoring while continuing to support the independence movement. During the course of his independence movement, he expressed that he would abdicate his royal status and submit to the rule of the democratic government. He led a quiet life after the independence, and died in 1955 at age 79.

Emperor Yunghui died without a son, and King Euichin was not favored by the Japanese because of his involvement in Korea's independence movement. Therefore, Gwangmu's youngest surviving son, King Yeongchin, succeeded the throne. Yi Eun, also known as King Yeongchin, was born in 1897. At age ten, he was taken to Japan to "study" under the patronage of the Japanese governor of Korea -- essentially being held as a hostage. As the contemporary Japanese nobility did, Yi Eun was forced to attend the military academy. He became an officer of the Japanese military, and was forced to married Nashimotonomiya Masako, a member of the Japanese royal family. He became the king of Korea after his father died in 1926, but only visited Korea briefly to accept the crown. He became a general of the Japanese army in 1938. He would see the end of World War II in Japan.

Young Yi Eun with his Japanese "patron,"
Governor-General Ito Hirobumi

After the war, Yi Eun lost his nobility status, which pushed his family into dire poverty. He would scrape by with the financial help from the very few remaining Korean royalists. His wife also had to work, notwithstanding her royal family status. He attempted to return to Korea, but was rebuffed -- that he served in the Japanese military and married a Japanese royal family did not play well with the newly established Korean government. He suffered a stroke in 1961 in Hawaii while visiting his son; he was allowed to return to Korea in 1963, and lived in the Changdeok Palace with his aunt. He passed away in 1970.

It is a cruel irony of history that the only person who came out of this drama with a shred of dignity was Yi Eun's wife, Masako. After returning to Korea in 1963, she changed her name to a Korean-style name Yi Bang-Ja and focused her energy on charity work, establishing schools for children with disabilities despite living off the meager government pension. She received numerous medals and awards for her volunteer work. She passed away in 1989.

Princess Deokhye, Gwangmu's youngest daughter who was born in 1912, is probably the most tragic figure. She was forcibly moved to Japan and attended a university, where she developed schizophrenia. In 1931, she married a Japanese nobleman in an arranged marriage, and had a daughter. She survived the war, but lost her only daughter in the process. She was abandoned by her husband in 1953 as her schizophrenia worsened. For the next nine years, she would go from mental hospital to mental hospital in Japan. Korean government heard about her in 1962. and President Park Chung-Hee passed the law providing for pension for the former royal family in response. Princess Deokhye returned to Korea, and lived in Changdeok Palace until 1989 when she passed away.

Third and Fourth Generations: Yi Gu and King Euichin's 21 Children

Yi Eun and Masako had two sons, but the older son died at less than one year old. The last official crown prince of Korean royal family is Yi Gu, born in 1931. He had spent his entire life in Japan, and he worked as a clerk for a company in Tokyo after World War II. In 1953, he moved abroad to study in MIT, and met his future wife -- a white American woman named Julia Murlock. Yi Gu married Murlock in 1959 in New York, and he worked for the architectural company of I.M. Pei.

He was also allowed to return to Korea in 1963, and lectured architecture in universities. But he could not adjust to the life in Korea. Although Korea was no longer a monarchy, the Jeonju Yi (Lee) lineage society took (and still takes) its royal family line very, very seriously. Yi Gu received pressure as a crown prince within his family, and that he married a white woman who could not get pregnant only intensified the pressure. Yi Gu separated from Murlock in 1977, and returned to Japan in 1979. He would visit Korea from time to time, but refused to settle down in Korea. He died alone in 2005 in a hotel in Tokyo; apparently Yi Gu favored the hotel because it overlooked his old birthplace. He was buried in a royal garb; his funeral was attended by the prime minister of Korea (equivalent to American vice president) and 1,000 people.

Yi Gu's funeral

This means that the only surviving royal family in Korea are the descendants of King Euichin, the rebel prince. Remarkably, he had 12 sons and 9 daughters from 13 different women -- as far as we know. Fate was not kind to them either. For example, Yi Geon, the oldest son of King Euichin, became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1947 and severed his ties with Korea completely. Reportedly, before he naturalized, he brought all of his (step-)brothers and sisters together and asked them all to forget about the fact that they belong to the royal family. He died in 1991. Yi Wu, the second son, died in Hiroshima as the officer of the Japanese military when the city was hit by the nuclear bomb. The rest scattered into Korea and America, and led more or less unremarkable lives. Out of the 21 children of King Euichin, ten (four sons, six daughters) are still alive. They live in Korea, New York, Los Angeles and San Jose. After Yi Gu passed away, the Jeonju Yi lineage society established the son of King Euichin's ninth son to be the crown prince -- a man named Yi Sang-Hyup, 50 years old.

*                *               *

What do contemporary Koreans think about the royal family? Yi Gu's death in 2005 served as a reminder to Korean people that Korea in fact had a royal family. This acted as a catalyst for the royal family fad in Korea. In a survey conducted in 2006, 54.4% was in favor of "restoring the royal family," although no one in Korea is quite sure what that means. In a survey conducted in 2010, the number dropped significantly to 40.4% in favor, but still outpaced the 23.4% against. But it would be wise not to put too much stock in those numbers, because the restoration of the royal family is a pipe dream as of now. The numbers will likely change dramatically when people start thinking about the concrete details -- for example, will the royal family have any kind of political power? Will they take back any part of their formerly vast property around the nation?

So regardless of the surveys that essentially ask if one prefers the moon to be made of cheddar cheese or Swiss cheese, the Korean is pretty confident that the monarchy is not coming back to Korea any time soon. If that means one less royal wedding that assaults the supermarket newsstands around the world, all for the better.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I have to ask a follow-up: why were so many family members poisoned by their own relatives?

    1. Many reasons,
      To some of my knowledge is that the main reason was
      1. The Throne.
      Who rules it and which is next in line.
      It happens around the world that has a royal family, royal blood line, things get ugly between once close family members. Greed and Jealousy play a hand in it.

      This might not be the reason, but its the only one that makes sense to me on why family members of the royal line would tried to kill or injured their kin.

  2. Yi Bang-ja also wrote an autobiography which was translated into English.

  3. radcontra: Poisonings and suspicious deaths were rife in other royal families too in the old days. If a king or emperor had many wives, each wife would want her own son to be the next ruler. So, they would poison the older sons of the other wives. Also, if other people around the court thought that a particular son was unfit to be a ruler, poisoning was not an uncommon response.

  4. @kimchikraut: Do you know the title of that book? I can't find a book under that author's name.

  5. @Wanda: I also ask because my (Korean) took umbrage at the notion that Koreans would poison each other. Sge disputed the assertion. She also disputes that princess Deokhye was schizophrenic, based on testimony she read from one of the family's chefs.

  6. Sorry, that was badly typed:

    @Wanda: I also ask because my (Korean) wife took umbrage at the notion that Koreans would poison each other. She disputed the assertion. She also disputes that Princess Deokhye was schizophrenic, based on testimony she read from one of the family's chefs.

  7. I feel pity for the state of their family clan. I was actually introduced to Confucian book for children authored by a member of the Jeonji Yi clan and whose preface was written by one of the heads of the 종친회. What's unusual is that it's the only book I know of that used the Year of Confucius (孔紀, 공기) dating, rather than the more usual Western (서기) or Tangun (단기).

  8. *was introduced to Confucianism with a Confucian book written for children by...

  9. @radcontra Search on amazon under: The World is One: Princess Yi Pangja

  10. I don't understand. Why did Yi Eun live under such poverty after WWII when he was a general in the imperial army? Skimming the wiki article, it seems that he was fairly high ranked.

    He didn't have a nest egg saved up despite his rank?

  11. As the person who asked the question thank you very much!! I was surprised the percentage supporting restoration was so high.

    And the nickname is my nickname from American Middle school....

  12. Thank you, The Korean. I learn something new every time I visit this site.

  13. I am under the impression that most Koreans nowadays view the royal family as shameful, due to their role in bringing Korea to shame. I am not sure how accurate this is, however.

    1. no its wasn't them that led the annexation of Korea to Japan, its was Lee Wan-yong that sign the treaty. You see, its was Korean citizen that give their own country to foreigner. What a shame being a Korean. If you study the history, King Sunjong himself refuse to sign the treaty. Here the link

  14. Really interesting stuff. Does anyone know of any other books on the topic? I'd love to read more about it.

  15. As for British-American relationships, UK is our closest ally now since our economic partnerships during the industrial revolution. I mean it's not the same thing as Korea and Japan, the revolutionary war was so long ago and we all know the royal family is just a symbol, not really a political force anymore so we're fine with it......

  16. The Korean wrote:
    After Yi Gu passed away, the Jeonju Yi lineage society established the son of King Euichin's ninth son to be the crown prince -- a man named Yi Sang-Hyup, 50 years old.

    Back in October 2008, I wrote a post on the pretenders to the Korean throne and it seemed to me that it was a bit more disputed than that, with 92-year-old Yi Haewon (born in 1919) and the Hyundai Shopping guy (the aforementioned Yi Sanghyŏp who also goes by Yi Won) both being in contention.

    In fact, someone claiming to be the great great grandchild of one of Kojong's sons wrote a lengthy rebuttal to what I'd written, as his/her view was decidedly blood-purist (i.e., no Japanese blood allowed in the heir, even though Korean royalty had historically been tainted by Mongolians, etc., and among European royalty, cross-national marriage was the norm).

    It's been two and a half years since I wrote that, and it was hard to follow then, so it would take me a while to properly rebut or support Yi Sanghyŏp's claim vis-à-vis the nonagenarian Yi Haewon's claim.

  17. The whole concept of a "Royal" family is really absurd to me. South Korea is now a fully functioning (ok maybe not FULLY) democracy, have legitimacy by the fact that we, citizens, are the true sovereigns of the state. A figurehead or not, I do not wish the descendents of 고종 or 순종 to be our "head of state." I just don't think that they would be able to symbolize Korea well, like Queen Elizbeth II in the UK. In addition, I feel like these "Royal" families deserve a normal life as average citizens, not as raised "puppets" for the citizens to enjoy.

    1. Korean Royal Family would only serve as a tangible living cultural treasure. They will serve no political power but serve to safeguard korea's culture.

    2. The Korean Royal Family would serve as living tangible cultural treasures. They would not serve any political power but to serve to protect korea's culture.

      So much of Korea has been lost in the 20th century.

  18. So tragic history... I guess that the percent in the 2006's survey was influenced by the drama "Goong-Princess Hours". Was a really nice drama and it gave the feeling that Korea would do fine with a royal family in the modern days...

  19. Frankly, I do see the value in restoring the monarchy with limited powers.

    In such breakneck modern times, they are a tangible tie to history and tradition, a grounding force. As long as they focus on nothing too political, they can be a voice for good in society — altruism, volunteerism, philanthropy, etc., — and they could be a unifying voice in troubling times (e.g., if unification were to occur).

    Their presence could be a benefit to tourism. Not nearly as much as the British royal family, but a little bit at least.

  20. I remember reading an article in LA about one of the descendents of the royal family being shot and killed while having dinner at a Korean town restaurant.

    He was working as a pilot for private jet (NetJets or something like it) when he happened to be in K Town in LA. While having dinner in one of the restaurants, a few gangs got into fights and he got into it to break it up. Someone pulled a gun and this descent was shot and killed.

    The private jet company he used to work for put his name (in old chinese/korean character) on one of the private jets.

  21. has anyone made a movie or drama series based on this story? plot & storyline would be interesting. i can see the numbers coming. i hope some producers would consider...i'm a sucker of period k-dramas or any other k-drama w/good stories & powerhouse casts.^_^

  22. Just started watching My Princess and this was very interesting reading to learn about the background of the Korean Imperial family. Thanks!

  23. do koreans want a royal family?

  24. A royal one of the Last Dynasty of Korea, Josun.

    I want to share with you at the blog about the above mentioned movie. it's all about the Last Princess Deokhye of the Last Dynasty of Korea, Josun.

    Thank you.

  25. There is already an alternate Korean royal family... the despicable Kims of the North. Absolute monarchy if there was one.

  26. I think restoring the Korean royal family is a great idea. They would have the same powers of the royal family in japan. Nothing political or military but as a symbol to the people.

    The main reason I think this would be a good idea is that it could facilitate in the reunification process of north and the south.

    1. Not a good idea! If reunification became a reality, you can bet that part of that agreement would be a north Korean royal family as they would serve the cultural future, lol. I believe Korea needs its royal family for cultural interest only. Much of its beautiful culture is lost during 20th century and the people deserve their heritage back and intact. As Korea moves forward, becomes more progressive and recognized in the world, it will need its monarchy.

  27. Koreans didn't want to have royality for our own being, but rather originally had been called for the rankers royal in the dynasty. It was the different system like what Japanese had because the system of Japanese's feudal kingships was so alike with what European had or they are still claiming they had the same system so they want to show they were also one of advanced cultivations like what Europes appeared.

    And the link following is so emotional because it has not any explanations, but may help listners to feel what the sorrows of Deokhye had from her childhood as the very kind of kidnapping by Japanese force and why and how she had to accept such unwanted merriage of convenience. It was not for Koreans liked to have the royality, but because she had to do for saving her own weak country in those days. . .

    This movie is what I made and uploaded in the youtube. I linked here.

  28. Please, visit us at or at to find more about Grand Prince Jinan, the first son of Chosun Taejo! We offer English translated articles about Grand Prince Jinan! Please, subscribe to our membership and start finding more about our next in line Korean king!

  29. You Korean should be proud of your unique culture, moreover you all just missing one of your culture that is the Monarch. You people of Korean have the power to arrange back your government, you can put the Monarch back to rule but with less power. Establish a government with constitutional Monarchy rule. The monarch will be just a figure head. Well that should be okay since they are only a symbolism in Korean culture. I don't understand why you people don't want the Monarch back. I heard some say that Korean people hate the monarch for surrendering the country to the Japanese but, i think that the plan of King Gojong to prevent more serious blood spill. Moreover, its Lee Wan-yong that sign the treaty of annexation of Korea to Japan not the monarch himself. Well its seem that Korean people themselves that willing to give Korea to Japan, what a fool! You see, the people himself make a mistake. Well i myself not a Korean but my land was ruled by a stupid ruler who not the same ethnic as i am. Their had persecute our kind for many times, you Korean, you should be proud that you all been ruled by your own king not foreign. So consider this

  30. For the person asking about Yi Pangja's book, the English version is called "The World is One", and there are usually copies available at the Royal Asiatic Society/Korea bookstore. She devotes a lot of the book to Empress Sunjeong, a heroic figure in many ways, and perhaps the last ruling empress. There's a story that when the 1910 treaty was forced upon Korea, she, still a young girl at that time, hid the great seal of state, so the Japanese were forced to make do with a forgery. Also, minor nitpick...Julia's last name is Mullock. My wife befriended her while in high school, volunteering at an orphanage. Julia went there to speak English, and my wife's English is quite good, so she befriended Julia, and ended up going next door where Yi Eun was hospitalized and translating for Julia. If you look at pictures of Julia, you'll notice she's a bit taller than Yi Gu, and a lot taller than Yoon Taepi - yet my wife is 5'3" and says Julia is shorter. My wife, by the way, is a descendant of Myoungseong's branch of the Min family, but she didn't poison anyone...;-)

  31. Bringing back a royal family would be a very good source of pride for the country, also a booster for the economy. It would be an all around wise move. Of course they would just be puppets, but they could have a palace and entertain many diplomats. It would be a smart move.

  32. It's all a lot of silliness really. The throne passed from father to son to brother and nephew and uncle and on two occasions to distant cousins. Various factions and clans and regents held more power than the king at several different times, and it was the royal family's corruption, greed and intrigue that weakened the country politically making it so easy for the Japanese to take over. The royal family isn't worth a darn thing, it's not some repository of virtue that some people make it out to be, it's a big farce. Also, Yi and Mullock adopted a daughter, but nobody seems to mention that.

  33. wow this cool my mother is the daughter of one of the six daughters at the end of this story and she would tell me stories about are family all the time but when i googled it i never knew how sad it really was but at the same time very cool

  34. Why were the men who married princesses' ,back in the royal days, banned from politics or anything to do with the palace really??

  35. A restored royal family would obviously only rule the South first. The North would be slightly amused but then they would make up the excuse that the monarch was put there by the Americans or Japanese or Grand National Party or whoever they hate that day. Then, even if unification happened, ordinary Northerners would resent a hereditary monarch, seeing how they suffered under the Kims. This could provide ammunition for a strong republican movement.

    You Brits seem too obsessed with monarchy. The Germans know better, and the Spanish are wising up.

  36. I've read a LOT of Korean history - I'm a history buff. I will admit that just as anime got me to learn about the Japanese civil war (Meiji restoration) & the novel Shogun got me interested in that period of Asian history (not just Japan) I got into Korean history by watching sageuks & wondering how that fit with Chinese & Japanese history. Gaksital got me to recognize the FULL infamy of Imperial Japan, in fact.
    & speaking of hallyu dramas, etc, boy that 3rd envoy, Yi Wi Jong, in the picture of Emperor Gojong's envoys, certainly looks a LOT like RAIN (Bi, Jung Ji Hoon, Sexy Abs, whatever you want to call him...)

  37. This comment has been removed by the author.

  38. Supposedly Jeonghye/Masae died of suicide around 1955 or 1956. Details are murky but some sources say she did it due to the separation of her parents (her father had remarried to a Japanese woman by then, so it's feasible she would have to choose between him and her mother if Deokhye ended up going to Korea, which did happen). Japanese Wikipedia says she did try to marry a Japanese boyfriend, but my Japanese is rusted and I cannot guess what happened after that or whether the marriage was consummated before her disappearance to begin with.

  39. America has lived for years from the earnings of Cowboy Movies, their history,I guess.
    England and Europe can go back a few years beyond that,The Middle Ages and Romans to the Vikings.
    Including the odd yarn about Royalty, they too have made a few dollars from Historical Movies.
    Now, what would have Korea done without it's Joseon and other royalty Movies and TV Drama, as money earners for them?

    We don't live in a perfect world today, much less then and everybody has their limitations, be they moral, intellectual or ignorant.

    Can you imagine the actual conditions both the Royals and ordinary people lived through in Joseon earlier than 1900?
    Just look at some of the old photographs!
    The Korean historical Movies and Drama depict today's machine made garments which is due to artistic license.

    Even the Royal Family and Yangban lived in poor hygiene and had clothes like 'horse blankets'.
    Just pay a visit to the Korean Folk Village, near Seoul, to see the conditions of the day.
    Rivers and streams were used for washing, cooking and as toilets.
    The infant and adult mortality rate must have been shocking!

    It's all too easy to comment about things past, especially, when we all seem to be unable to do anything about our world today!


  40. Sad stories.............

  41. There's still another descendants of king of Joseon that still exist today, fro example our renowned hallyu star Lee Seung Gi. He's the from the line of Teajong of Joseon( Yi Bang Won). Thus, he and other people like him have rights to the throne??

  42. I saw a video recently about Lee Hae-kyoung (Yi Hae-kyoung?) who is supposed to be a granddaughter to Emperor Gojong. Very old when the piece was filmed, she was visiting the house that had been the Korean Legation to the United States (on Logan Circle in Washington D.C.). I think she's a librarian somewhere in the U.S. That video is several years old. She is described as the last Princess of the Korean Empire who recalls living in the palace. Do you know anything about her?


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