The royal family of the Korean Empire has disappeared into the mists of history. However, the last imperial descendant, Lee Seok, emphasizes that the royal family culture from the Joseon Dynasty should be a present day cultural and spiritual center. He is also known as the singer of the song A Dove House. Let’s explore more about the royal family culture and Lee’s dreams for the 21st century.

A Royal Family Descendant Standing in the Mists of History

Lee Seok, the Joseon Dynasty’s last imperial descendant, and the president of the Royal Culture Foundation, lives in a hanok (traditional Korean house) with a signboard that says Seunggwangjae. Born into the royal family of a ruined country, one can imagine the background of his life full of ups and downs. “My father used to let out his pent-up anger. He often fired a pistol, saying he wanted to die or that he wanted to kick the Japanese army out of Korea. He passed away when I was 16.” His father King Uichin, the fifth son of King Gojong, was the only royal family member who joined the anti-Japanese struggles during the Japanese colonial period. Lee Seok, King Uichin’s 11th son, was born in Sadonggung Palace in Seoul and went to school accompanied by court ladies. However, the ruined royal family was poor, and when he was a college student, he had to work part-time as a club DJ. Later he became a singer and an MC for performances held at the Eighth US Army residing in Korea. “Empress Sunjeong was quite angry at me saying, ‘How could a royal descendant become a clown even though the royal family collapsed?’” In 1966, Lee joined the Vietnamese War and returned to Korea due to an injury. In 1968, he released the album “A Dove House” and debuted as a singer. On October 26, 1979, President Park Chung-hee was assassinated, and Lee was later kicked out of Chilgung Shrine and thus he fled to the U.S, buried in grief.

Restoring the “Root” of Korean History

It is not difficult to assume that Lee faced several challenges in life while living in a foreign country. He had no job, no money, and he even was an illegal immigrant. He took on all types of jobs from cleaning pools and high-rise buildings, to working as an armed security guard. In 1989, he returned to Korea after hearing that crown princess Yi Bang-ja had passed away. However, he still felt he belonged nowhere, until October 2004 when Jeonju city allowed him to stay in the Seunggwangjae House. Lee finally settled there and took on the position of Cultural Ambassador of Jeonju. Once settled in the city after years of wandering about like a vagabond, Lee Seok (president of the Royal Culture Foundation) is busy doing various activities to restore the royal family culture. He says he is not trying to restore the royal family’s wealth and authority of the past. Instead he wants to restore the “root” of Korean history and culture as well as the symbolic value of the royal family, which were distorted and damaged during the Japanese colonial era. “I travel across the country and give lectures to enhance the accurate understanding of Korean history and royal family culture.

I believe my job is to restore the root of Korean history, which was damaged and collapsed under Japanese colonialism.” Maybe the “royal family” he dreams about can be realized only in dramas, like the Korean drama Gung (Princess Hours). However, we should not forget that the unfortunate destiny of the royal family is also part of our history.

What was life like for the royal family members after the establishment of the Republic of Korea?

Even though people do not remember any longer, the royal family members used to live in palaces until President Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26, 1979. I was born in Sadonggung Palace, Seoul in 1941. The palace is gone now, but the area from Anguk-dong Rotary to the Taehwa Building site was where the palace was located. Sadonggung Palace was the private residence of my father King Uichin. Different levels of court ladies (sanggung, nain and cheonggakssi) also lived in the palace, whereas my elder brothers who were married lived in separate houses within the palace. Afterwards, I moved to Seongnagwon Palace, a byeolgung (a royal villa), Changdeokgung Palace, Nakseonjae Hall, and Chilgung Shrine (Historic Site No. 149, located within Cheongwadae). Later, the Rhee Syngman government established the Royal Property Management Act and nationalized the royal family’s properties. Since then, the royal family members have suffered much financial difficulties. The former Royal Family Property Administration Office provided some financial aid to Empress Sunjeong, but the amount was far from enough to provide a living. I heard the royal family members received some living allowances until the end of Park Chung-hee’s government. However, the family members were literally kicked out after the October 26th assassination. They were then all driven asunder, some of them passed away, and others left for foreign countries.

What do you think is the ideal way of restoring the Korean Empire’s royal family?

First, I am not saying we should literally restore the “royal family” system. But I do believe we need to maintain the historic, traditional and cultural aspects of the royal family. Maybe restoring the royal family as a symbol representing Korea is a good idea. A symbolic royalty, as in the case of the U.K., can become the pivotal point for the Korean people. I think Spain’s Franco administration restored the monarchy 40 years after the war for the same reason. Many of the people who attended my lecture deplore that the Koreans are forgetting the wonderful history of the royal family.

The royal family is living proof of Joseon Dynasty’s history, a 500 year period out of the Korean peninsula’s 5,000 year history. Meeting with historic royal family members as friendly figures, rather than rulers, will be meaningful. Currently, 42 countries in the world have a monarch regime. We can have cultural exchanges with these countries if we have a royal family again. I believe restoring Korea’s royal family has clear significance in terms of spiritual culture.

What do you think is the value of the Korean Empire’s royal family as a cultural tourism content?

Most tourists in Jeonju Hanok Village visit Seunggwangjae House. And many of them come to meet me, of course. Some parents explain to their children that I am a member of the royal family, the one that they learned in the history textbook, and the kids look amazed. The fact that there is a royal descendant named Lee Seok in Jeonju shows that it is a cultural tourism content. At the same time, the royal family has significance as a living symbol of Korean history.

전주 이석6

Before I came to Jeonju Hanok Village, the number of annual visitors ranged in the hundreds of thousands, but now the number is up to 10 million. I feel very proud when people say I, as a royal family member, raised the status of Jeonju Hanok Village. Also, Seunggwangjae is a must-visit place within the village for foreign ambassadors, diplomats and renowned figures in various fields. I can proudly say that I, as a symbolic figure representing the royal family, am somewhat contributing to raising Jeonju’s status. I believe the royal family is a meaningful cultural content that cannot be found elsewhere.

PROGRAMS

History Tour with the Royal Descendant

The History Tour with the Royal Descendant is held at Gyeonggijeon Shrine. The aim of the event is to enhance the accurate understanding of Korean history by tourists and ordinary people alike; promote Jeonju as the birthplace of the Joseon Dynasty; and introduce the city’s culture, history and cultural properties. The event is held at 15:00 every other Saturday, after the guard-changing ceremony.

A Guided Tour of Gyeonggijeon Shrine and the Royal Portrait Museum

Gyeonggijeon Shrine, located at the entrance of Jeonju Hanok Village, is the root of Joseon Dynasty. The shrine consists of the main hall where the portrait of Joseon Dynasty’s first king Yi Seong-gye (National Treasure No. 317) is located; Jogyeongmyo where the ancestral tablet of Yi Han, the progenitor of the Lee clan of Jeonju, is placed; Jeonjusago, a library where several chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty are stored; and a placenta chamber where the umbilical cord of King Yejong is buried. Reservations are required for a guided group tour with Lee Seok.

Seunggwangjae House Tour and Activity Programs

Royal descendant Lee Seok lives in Seunggwangjae House. The word Seunggwangjae (meaning inheriting the light) originates from Gwangmu, the name of the Korean Empire’s new era. The house intends to follow the intention of King Gojong. Seunggwangjae House exhibits the photos of Lee Seok and the kings in the early Joseon era. Visitors can also join royal family culture programs and learn about the history of Joseon, royal tea ceremonies, as well as royal etiquettes.

Experiencing a Joseon Dynasty Style State Examination Wearing a Confucian Scholar Uniform

You can wear a Confucian scholar uniform and traditional headband worn by men in the Joseon Dynasty, to experience the feeling of taking a state examination during that period. Participants need to write a three or four-line poem, and those who are chosen after the evaluation are given a prize and souvenir provided by the Royal Culture Foundation. The program is for group tourists only.

RECOMMENDED TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Omokdae

Located on top of a small hill, Omokdae overlooks Jeonju Hanok Village. Omokdae is where Yi Seong-gye (who later became King Taejo, the first king of the Joseon Dynasty) stopped to celebrate his victory on his way home from a war with Japanese invaders. After Yi Seong-gye founded the Joseon Kingdom, he built a pavilion on the hill and named it Omokdae. Across the six-lane road in front of Omokdae is Imokdae, where Mokjo Yi An-sa, one of Yi’s forefathers, had once lived.

  • Address:
    • San 1-11 Gyo-dong, Wansan-gu, Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do
  • Tel.
    • 063-281-2114
Jeondong Catholic Cathedral

As one of the most beautiful Catholic cathedrals in Korea, Jeondong Catholic Cathedral (Historic Site No. 288) uniquely combines the Byzantine and Romanesque styles. This beautiful and magnificent cathedral is the oldest and biggest modern Western-style building in Jeolla-do, as well as a holy ground where the first martyrs were killed. The building is right across Gyeonggijeon Shrine in Jeonju Hanok Village.

  • Address:
    • 51 Taejo-ro, Wansan-gu, Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do
  • Tel.
    • 063-284-3222

PROGRAMS

History Tour with the Royal Descendant

The History Tour with the Royal Descendant is held at Gyeonggijeon Shrine. The aim of the event is to enhance the accurate understanding of Korean history by tourists and ordinary people alike; promote Jeonju as the birthplace of the Joseon Dynasty; and introduce the city’s culture, history and cultural properties. The event is held at 15:00 every other Saturday, after the guard-changing ceremony.

A Guided Tour of Gyeonggijeon Shrine and the Royal Portrait Museum

Gyeonggijeon Shrine, located at the entrance of Jeonju Hanok Village, is the root of Joseon Dynasty. The shrine consists of the main hall where the portrait of Joseon Dynasty’s first king Yi Seong-gye (National Treasure No. 317) is located; Jogyeongmyo where the ancestral tablet of Yi Han, the progenitor of the Lee clan of Jeonju, is placed; Jeonjusago, a library where several chronicles of the Joseon Dynasty are stored; and a placenta chamber where the umbilical cord of King Yejong is buried. Reservations are required for a guided group tour with Lee Seok.

Seunggwangjae House Tour and Activity Programs

Royal descendant Lee Seok lives in Seunggwangjae House. The word Seunggwangjae (meaning inheriting the light) originates from Gwangmu, the name of the Korean Empire’s new era. The house intends to follow the intention of King Gojong. Seunggwangjae House exhibits the photos of Lee Seok and the kings in the early Joseon era. Visitors can also join royal family culture programs and learn about the history of Joseon, royal tea ceremonies, as well as royal etiquettes.

Experiencing a Joseon Dynasty Style State Examination Wearing a Confucian Scholar Uniform

You can wear a Confucian scholar uniform and traditional headband worn by men in the Joseon Dynasty, to experience the feeling of taking a state examination during that period. Participants need to write a three or four-line poem, and those who are chosen after the evaluation are given a prize and souvenir provided by the Royal Culture Foundation. The program is for group tourists only.

RECOMMENDED TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Omokdae

Located on top of a small hill, Omokdae overlooks Jeonju Hanok Village. Omokdae is where Yi Seong-gye (who later became King Taejo, the first king of the Joseon Dynasty) stopped to celebrate his victory on his way home from a war with Japanese invaders. After Yi Seong-gye founded the Joseon Kingdom, he built a pavilion on the hill and named it Omokdae. Across the six-lane road in front of Omokdae is Imokdae, where Mokjo Yi An-sa, one of Yi’s forefathers, had once lived.

  • Address:
    • San 1-11 Gyo-dong, Wansan-gu, Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do
  • Tel.
    • 063-281-2114
Jeondong Catholic Cathedral

As one of the most beautiful Catholic cathedrals in Korea, Jeondong Catholic Cathedral (Historic Site No. 288) uniquely combines the Byzantine and Romanesque styles. This beautiful and magnificent cathedral is the oldest and biggest modern Western-style building in Jeolla-do, as well as a holy ground where the first martyrs were killed. The building is right across Gyeonggijeon Shrine in Jeonju Hanok Village.

  • Address:
    • 51 Taejo-ro, Wansan-gu, Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do
  • Tel.
    • 063-284-3222
INFORMATION
Seunggwangjae House
  • Address
    • 12-6 Choemyeonghui-gil, Wansan-gu, Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do
  • Tel.
    • 063-284-2323
Writer by Song Ji-yoo | Photo by Nam Yoon-Jung(AZA Studio)
Client KTO | Production D.gram(Cultural Tours Alongside Local Celebrities) ⓒdgram.co.kr All Rights Reserved.
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