|Born||1941 (age 72–73)
Sadong Palace, Seoul
|Revised Romanization||I Seok|
Yi Seok (born 1941) is a prince of the House of Yi, the Korean royal family. He was described as the "last pretender" to the Korean throne by The New York Times, although this status is not recognized by the Yi family association. Yi gained fame as the "singing prince" with the wedding favorite "Pigeon House", released in 1967. Since 2004, he has been employed by the city of Chonju to promote tourism. He is also a professor of history at Jeonju University. He is a son of Prince Yi Kang, the fifth son of Emperor Gojong of Korea.
Currently, Yi Seok resides in a building renovated for his use by the city of Jeonju, 243 kilometers south of Seoul. The city government hopes that Seok's settlement on the grounds of its Hanok Village will spotlight the historic significance of the city and help it to attract tourists. As part of this arrangement, Seok gives lectures to Jeonju visitors about Korean history. He also frequently lectures elsewhere and is often called upon for ceremonial duties, despite his official status as a private citizen. Recently, Seok authored a book about the late Joseon Dynasty royal court family and has founded an organization, which he now leads, "The Imperial Grandson Association", dedicated to preserving the culture of the royal court.
Yi Seok was born and raised in Sadong Palace in Seoul during the Japanese occupation. After WW2 ended with the occupation and partition of Korea by the allies in the South, and the Russians and Chinese in the north, the Korean Imperial family was rendered homeless, what assets that were not confiscated by the Japanese were then confiscated by the incoming Syngman Rhee government, and forced to temporary accommodation within palaces in Seoul.
The coming of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 led the cadet elements of the Imperial family to flee by an American landing craft from Incheon, along the coast down to Busan, then to live in a hillside monastery in Jeju Island till the war ended in the autumn of 1953 when they returned to Seoul.
Yi Seok as a young man was required to look after his family as best he could, along with his brothers, and took any jobs that he could to provide for his parents and siblings before and after university during the hard times of the Korean War and Cold War era as the Republic of Korea fought communism and internal subversion.
At Hankook University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Yi Seok studied foreign languages, principally Spanish, as well as foreign relations and history, became fluent in several languages, and prepared himself for the diplomatic service. A series of coups, changes in government and civil discord rendered that impossible. Paying his own way through university, Seok again worked at many different jobs to provide for his family, and as he had an aptitude for entertaining, became a well known singer and professional musician in the 1960s while in his twenties, having several hit songs.
Yi Seok volunteered for the Korean military and served as an enlisted man in the Vietnam War as an infantryman in the Capital Division also known as the Tiger Division. The Tiger Division was an all-volunteer division in which all soldiers donated 80% of their pay back to the Republic of Korea to support the post-war economy.
Apart from serving in combat in many engagements as a member of the 1st Infantry Regiment of the Tiger Division, Seok was seriously wounded by shrapnel in a convoy that was landmined. Before and after his recuperation for his shoulder injury, he also found time to entertain the troops during off-hours at their request. Before Seok was wounded he participated in combat operations from Tiger1 to Tiger12 with his regiment. The Division had a distinguished history in combat.
The Lost Years
Returning to the Republic of Korea, the Imperial family was again given accommodation at palaces in Seoul, but with the coup following the assassination of President Park Chung Hee in 1979, the Imperial family was ordered out of the palace at gunpoint; and what properties and assets they had were finally totally confiscated. Yi Seok then travelled to the United States where he took again a series of jobs in the recessionary 1980s to provide for his family and his relatives whilst attempting protracted legal and moral battles to retrieve family properties seized illegally, and now irretrievable under post-war Korean law. In the Los Angeles riots of 1992, many of his personal possessions, archives, and historical photographs were lost in the fires.
With the changed political climate in the early 1990s, Seok was able to return to the Republic of Korea, and once again attempt to live in old family properties, and battle for his legal rights as a private citizen. After a series of difficult times, he had a series of spiritual revelations, retired to a monastery, and regained a new public life at the beginning of the 21st century, with a series of constant travels doing educational work, promoting both Korean Imperial tourism and the restoration of historical buildings, and a schedule that involves over 100 speaking engagements or public appearances each year. Currently he lives in Jeonju, South Korea.
The hardships and resilience that is typical of Korean life from WW2 to the post Vietnam era proved interesting and Yi Seok's life was made into a dramatic semi-fictional TV programme on the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS).
Together with many members of the Korean Imperial family, Seok has worked to maintain Imperial Korean traditions that go back to 1392. His current concerns are in the areas of teaching history on an extensive lecture circuit to schools and colleges in the Republic of Korea, as well as encouraging more historical tours as a way of preserving essential aspects of Korean tradition for future generations. He has also lectured on the historical cultural relations between Korea and Japan, and toured Japan with his students to promote such cultural awareness.
In October 2004, Yi Seok returned to the royal city of Jeonju upon the invitation of the mayor, to bring new focus to Jeonju's attempt to regain cultural primacy in Korea.
In February 2005, Yi Seok began teaching twice weekly classes on Korean history at Jeonju University with the title of professor. His classes center on Joseon Dynasty era figures as well as introducing pre-1900 Korean history to sophomore students.
Throughout 2006, Yi Seok has made unofficial visits to several foreign countries for speaking engagements on traditional Korean culture including a visit to the USA (Los Angeles, and Washington); Mexico City, Mexico; and to Frankfurt, Germany for a Korean trade fair. In September 2006, Yi Seok travelled as a professor with fellow academics and students to Japan, returning to celebrate his birthday on September 26 at home.
Publications and media
Yi Seok is also a recently published author on the ceremonial rites of his family. He has agreed to host a TV series, which is currently in pre-production, on Korean royal history.
Entitled "A Personal View of Korea", the documentary series will feature three episodes on Korean history, palaces and temples, and on the fortress architecture of the over 20 Yi Dynasty castles.
Production is expected to begin in the summer of 2007, and foreign rights sales are presently being negotiated.
- Yi Hong (이홍 i hong) (born 1974), the eldest daughter of Yi Seok. She married Han Yeong-gwang (한영광 han yeong gwang), an actor of Korea, having had issue, one daughter (2001).
- Yi Jin (이진 i jin) (born 1979), the second daughter of Yi Seok who takes an active interest in women's rights, and the promotion of traditional Korean ceramic arts. She is the most well travelled of the young royals and has toured throughout Europe, and has studied in the USA, Australia, under private tutors in Canada, and has done briefly course-work in Japan. She is living in Canada.
- Yi Jung-hun (이정훈 i jeong hun) (born 1980), the only son of Yi Seok who is planning a career in IT. He is living in the United States.
- Seoul's Imperial Temple of Heaven and the Revival of its Ceremony in June 2002
- "Korean royalty seeks to restore ancestral pride", Washington Times, May 22, 2003.
- "Prince hopes to bring monarchy back to S.Korea", Reuters, Nov 6, 2006.
- Forgotten Korean Prince gets Royal Treatment, New York Times, May 19, 2006
The Korean royal family website is expected to appear in English by early 2007, and is currently available in Korean.