Chongju, Republic of Korea - Prince Yi Seok,former crooner turned teacher and
tourist attraction,started a nationwide petition drive earlier this month to
restore the Republic of Korea's (ROK) ancient monarchy, forced from power a
Prince Yi insists the aim of his campaign is not to return his family to
power but only to restore something that, as much as anything,would be good for
"On November 7, we start,"Yi told a small group of diplomats and foreign
journalists on a recent trip to Chonju, one of the cradles of Korean culture.
"I plan to build a symbolic monarchy. From this autumn, I will go to every
nook and cranny of Korean society to get signatures from people," Yi said.
After so long without a monarchy in a country that has only recently shifted
from militarycontrolled politics to democracy, do people in the ROK care?
According to Yi, the answer is yes and he plans to collect more than 1
million signatures to prove it.
"When I go out, some people treat me like royal family. They call me 'Your
Highness' and then I cry with joy."
Prince Yi's claim to the longdormant throne follows the death of an older
relative last year.
The prince says he is now in line to succeed as head of the Yi family, who
ruled Korea during the 500 years of the Chosun Dynasty when the country was
known to the outside world as the Hermit Kingdom.
That dynasty came to an end with Japanese colonial rule in 1910.The last
emperor was Sunjong who died childless. His younger brother,Prince Uichin, was
Yi Seok's father who sired more than 20 children with 10 wives.
"Now Toksu Palace and Kyongbok Palace (both in Seoul)are empty and only some
guides pass around there. If the government allows us to live in the palaces,we
will welcome the touristsand guide them. Wouldn't it be great?" Prince Yi said.
As with other royal families elsewhere in the world that lost their position
long ago, there are other claimants for the defunct Korean title.
Yi was dismissive of the coronation as empress of a half-sister Yi Hae-won,
88, in a Seoul hotel room in September.
Japanese-born Lee Ku, who spoke almost no Korean and lived most of his life
in obscurity in Tokyo,died last year without fathering a child and was the last
direct heir to the throne.
Lee, who used a different transliteration of the family name,had been the
only surviving son of Korea's last crown prince.
Lives in tourist site
Yi, who teaches history at a local university, lives in a traditional Korean
wooden house made available to him by the local government. It stands on a site
in this ancient city open to tourists whom he willingly greets.
Born in 1941, Yi's life, like that of so many of his peers on the divided
peninsula,has been hard.
But when he talks of his eight suicide attempts or the time he was a soldier
during the Viet Nam War and was shot while fi ghting on the US side, he does so
with a broad smile and easy laugh,speaking in a mixture of English and Korean.
He has tried a range of jobs over the years to support himself and his family
after the government took away the last remaining stipends for Korea's royals.
For a time he earned a living as a singer and, for his guests,gives a brief,
and tuneful, rendition of "I Left my Heart in San Francisco," signature song of
US crooner Tony Bennett.
In the background, traditional Korean music plays constantly. Yi points to a
framed calligraphy of the Chinese character for "patience," one of the few
possessions he has from his family.
Above him is a portrait of his father and his grandfather, the 26th Chosun