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Coronation of Korea’s new empress leads to royal family controversy

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Coronation of Korea’s new empress leads to royal family controversy
Published : October 22, 2006

Yi Hae-won, who was recently restored as the new empress of Korea. By Choi Jae-young

The crowning of Korea’s “new empress” on Sept. 29 was presented by her backers as a means to unite royal descendants spread across the country and “speak as one voice.” What it did instead was to set family members against each other as they dispute not only the line of descent but also the legitimacy of the private organization that named Yi Hae-won as empress of South Korea.
Meeting Ms. Yi was itself quite an exercise. The day of the meeting, a spokesman from the Imperial Family Association of Daehanjeguk (the Empire of Korea) postponed the interview for two hours, at a venue the JoongAng Daily was asked not to reveal “for reasons of security,” and the reporter had to wait another two hours until the empress arrived. The 88-year-old is only about 1.3 meters tall (4 foot, 3 inches) and a little stooped, but the small woman in a jade green hanbok looked composed and tenacious.
Once Ms. Yi arrived and settled herself for the interview, organization spokesman Lee Seong-joo asked the reporter and a handful of men who accompanied her to bow to her four times, bending from the waist to make almost a right angle. “That’s the right way to greet an empress in the royal custom,” he said. The other men in the room all claimed to be of the Lee clan, as was the first emperor of the Joseon dynasty. (Yi and Lee are different spellings of the same family name.) The men stayed throughout the short interview, interrupting and answering questions addressed to Ms. Yi, as did the spokesman.
“I am legitimate, no matter who says what,” the empress declared, referring to opposition to her claim, particularly from the Jeonju Lee Royal Family Members Foundation.

Yi Won, front, and Yi Seok, back, at the funeral of Yi Ku on July 24, 2005. By Choi Jae-young

She said is the oldest surviving child of Prince Uichin (1877-1955), the fifth son of Emperor Gojong (1852-1919). Official records show that Prince Uichin fathered 12 sons and nine daughters.
“I was born to the approved wife of Prince Uichin,” Ms. Yi continued, “I will restore the imperial culture.”
The 10th of those sons, Ms. Yi’s younger brother Yi Seok, thinks his sister was persuaded to take the title by a group of Lee family members because of her difficult life.
After Korea’s liberation from Japan, the new government nationalized the royal fortune and ousted the family from its palaces. Ms. Yi raised three sons and a daughter by herself after her husband was kidnapped and taken to the North during the Korean War. She said she doesn’t know if her husband is still alive, and her daughter died at the age of 47. Two of her sons live in the United States, where she also lived for 10 years until 2002. Since then, Ms. Yi, who spent her first 15 years in a palace, has lived in a 13.2-square-meter (142 square-foot) room in Hanam, Gyeonggi province, with her second son.

Empress Yi Hae-won’s wedding at 19 to Lee Seung-gyu. Provided by the Imperial Family Association of Daehanjeguk

“I don’t mind if my sister [Yi Hae-won] takes the empress seat or not,” Yi Seok said. “However, the family members in direct line didn’t approve such a ceremony. I was invited to the coronation, but I didn’t attend because I didn’t know who [the association members are].”
What he does mind, and what aroused some controversy in Korean society, is the way Ms. Yi was named empress. There was no prior public discussion on the status of an empire or the imperial family within Korea, although an August poll by Realmeter, a research company, did ask what Koreans thought about having a symbolic royal family. Of the 460 Koreans aged 19 or older who were polled, just under 55 percent supported the idea.
“There should have first been enough discussion to get public approval,” said Yi Seok. “When I give lectures on the history of the Korean royal family, I see a lot of people who miss the empire.” He added, “I plan to collect signatures from people and if more than 1 million want to restore the empire, even though it’s just symbolic, I will present that list to the president and ask him to restore the imperial culture and allow some descendants to live in Gyeongbok or Changdeok palaces.”
Members of the Jeonju Lee Royal Family Members Foundation said the family had already selected who should succeed the late Yi Ku, the last direct heir to the throne and the son of Crown Prince Yeongchin, the seventh son of Emperor Gojong.
“[Having an empress] doesn’t make any sense at all,” said Lee Jeong-jae, an official of the foundation, with obvious anger. “When Yi Ku passed away in July of last year, we selected Yi Won as his successor,” he said. Yi Won is a son of Yi Chung-gil, the surviving ninth son of Prince Uichin. “Such [a restoration] ceremony will only confuse the Korean people,” added Lee Yong-kyu, the vice chairman of the foundation. “Korea is not a constitutional monarchy, the royal descendant’s role is limited to that of an officiating priest and his ruling role was removed a long time ago,” he said. In Confucian custom, a woman cannot lead a ritual to honor ancestors.

Prince Uichin. Provided by the Imperial Family Association of Daehanjeguk

“The direct descendants of the empire had a family meeting right after the news that Yi Ku passed away, and decided to have Yi Won entered in the family register of Yi Ku as a son,” said the vice chairman. “We just followed their decision.”
That family meeting is in itself controversial. The vice chairman said that both Ms. Yi and her younger brother, as imperial family members, attended the meeting. Yi Seok and Yi Hae-won, however, told the JoongAng Daily that not only were they not at the meeting, they were not even aware of it. “Adopting a son after death doesn’t make any sense,” Yi Seok said angrily by phone.
“I heard that Crown Princess Yi Bang-ja [the wife of Crown Prince Yeongchin] wrote a will before she died, and in it she named me as first successor,” he added. He said Kim Sang-ryeol, who was close to the Crown Princess, is in possession of that will. Mr. Kim, however, refused to confirm what the will contained, but said he plans to reveal its contents to the public someday.
Added to all the infighting, the legitimacy of those calling themselves the Imperial Family Association of Daehanjeguk is unclear. Although its members say that they are close relatives of the royal family, they are not listed in the direct imperial family records.
The association is now preparing a residence and office for Ms. Yi in a building near Seoul Station, using two floors with a total area of about 396 square meters. The spokesman said that the building owner is also a member of the organization, and supports the Empire of Korea.
“We’re not asking the government to financially support us. We’ll raise funds from supporters of the royal family,” Mr. Lee said. “But as the empress is old, we don’t have much time to restore the royal tradition and legitimacy, which will contribute to the development of Korea’s history and culture,” he added.
The last words the empress spoke during the interview only added to the questions one might have about the association. “They treat me like a puppet,” she said as she took her leave.


Eight of Prince Uichin’s children , his first wife, Kim Deok-soo, center front, and two court ladies behind her. Second from the right is Yi Hae-won. Provided by the Imperial Family Association of Daehanjeguk

The root of the current family feud goes back to the time of Emperor Gojong, who was deprived of diplomatic power in 1905 by Japan before it colonized Korea in 1910. Emperor Gojong had nine sons and four daughters, but only four lived long enough to marry: Emperor Sunjong, Prince Uichin, Crown Prince Yeongchin and Princess Deokhye. Prince Uichin as the second-eldest son, was next in line, but as he participated in Korea’s independence movement, the Japanese government forced Emperor Sunjong, who had no children, to leave the title to Prince Yeongchin.
Hirobumi Ito, the resident general during the Joseon dynasty, took the crown prince to Japan at the age of 11 to be educated there, where he was married to Masako Nashimotonomiya, better known as Crown Princess Yi Bang-ja, who was a member of Japan’s royal family. The crown princess, who was a candidate to become Japan’s empress, recalled in her autobiography that she was chosen as Prince Yeongchin’s wife in an attempt to end the Joseon royal line, as Japanese doctors had diagnosed her as infertile. However, she gave birth to two sons, Jin and Ku. Jin died at the age of eight months, leaving Ku, as the only surviving son of the last crown prince, in the main line of descent.
Yi Ku, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and married an American Julia Mullock, had no children. He died last year in a hotel room in Japan, leaving no clear successor.


by Park Sung-ha

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