My husband and I had spent a week sightseeing in Seoul, climbing to the top floors of skyscrapers to ogle the city’s sea of blinking lights. But now it was time to board a bus and travel to a remote village to learn about a time before neon. A time when there was just one Korea, ruled by an imperial dynasty.
We had an appointment in Jeonju, a small city about three hours south of the capital. An appointment with a prince, a descendant of the Joseon Dynasty, the last and longest-ruling royal family on the Korean peninsula.
I’d heard about Yi Seok, the lost prince who has struggled to make his way in a post-imperial world, at a dinner party during a six-month stay in South Korea. When my husband came to visit, we were hungry to see a part of Korea that wasn’t modern or fast or covered in dingy concrete. So we set out to meet the prince and get a glimpse of what Korea was like before it became a contemporary powerhouse.
In a wealthy country the size of Indiana, the bus ride to Jeonju, the ancestral home of the Joseon rulers, was easy and comfortable: a few hours on speedy, well-paved roads, with a stop for coffee and walnut-shaped pastries filled with bean paste.
We passed green mountains and miles of farmland before reaching Jeonju, where we took a cab to our final destination: a restored village of whitewashed houses with dark ceramic-tiled roofs. Similar museums full of traditional houses, known as hanoks, exist around the country. But Jeonju has one of the biggest and best preserved.
We made our way to Yi Seok’s apartment, which is part of a guesthouse near the edge of the village. The prince was running late, visiting his girlfriend in another city, so we checked into a room across the courtyard. We were nervous about staying there on a winter evening — the windows and doors are made of paper! — but the manager promised that we would sleep like kings in padded silk blankets on a heated floor.
The prince arrived after dark in a silver minivan and invited us into his living room, where we sat cross-legged around a shining pot of tea. Still handsome at 70, he wore a quilted silk jacket in a muted color, a modern-day version of old-style Korean clothes. Portraits of his grandfather, Emperor Gojong, and his uncle, (the last) Emperor Sunjong, hung on the wall above us.
“Every night I dream of the palace days,” Yi Seok began, in sometimes hesitant English. We leaned in. This is what we’d come to hear — the tale of a fortunate son born too late.
Yi Seok’s life story is best known for its low point and his rebirth: After decades of struggle, including immigrating illegally to the United States, he returned to Korea only to become homeless. In 2004, a Korean reporter found him sleeping in an all-night bathhouse in Seoul and wrote about his plight. The city of Jeonju, seeking to promote tourism as the birthplace of the Joseon dynasty’s founder, gave him a house and a new job as a spokesman for the past.
Today he gives tours in Jeonju and speaks about royal history at universities around the country. He’s invited to wave to crowds at festivals and ribbon cuttings and to kick the first ball in soccer games.
Born in 1941, long after his family had lost power but before it was expelled from its royal homes, Yi Seok spent his early years at Sadong Palace in Seoul. His mother was one of 10 wives of Prince Uiwha, and Yi had more than 20 siblings. He reminisced about going to school escorted by handmaids and following a strict code of princely behavior: Running was undignified; making noise at dinner was forbidden.
The Joseon dynasty came to power in 1392, when military general Yi Song-gye overthrew the Koryo king, ending more than four centuries of rule by a dynasty that had been weakened by Mongol invasions. He moved the capital to Seoul from Kaesong, which is about 50 miles north. Yi and the 26 monarchs who followed oversaw the creation of a unique Korean alphabet, the full bloom of Confucian culture, and an isolationist foreign policy that earned Korea its “Hermit Kingdom” nickname.
The Yis’ five-century reign came to an end in 1910, when Japan colonized Korea. After World War II, the expulsion of the Japanese and the country’s division, North Korea pursued a different kind of family dynasty. But in the Republic of Korea, leaders these days are elected, and daily life has less and less to do with the country’s royal roots.
As the prince put it, “Korean people, they don’t care about the royal family. They just care about democracy.”
By the time Yi finished college, his family had few remaining assets. He found a job singing in hotel bars and on military bases. Although his new career embarrassed some relatives, “the singing prince” became popular. A ballad that he wrote, “Nest of Doves,” became a wedding favorite. There in the living room, he broke into another tune he liked to sing, from “West Side Story.” “Tonight, tonight, there’s only you tonight,” he crooned.
Yi went to Vietnam during the war, entertaining the U.S. troops and taking a bullet in the shoulder from the Viet Cong. He left Korea again in 1979, when the royal family was officially evicted from the palaces during a military coup following the assassination of President Park Chung Hee.
He went to the United States on a tourist visa and stayed, cleaning pools and working as a security guard in Los Angeles. Paying a Korean American woman to marry him in Las Vegas, he applied for a green card.
When his aunt died in 1989, he returned to Korea for the funeral, but there was no homecoming. By then, the Changdeok Palace in Seoul, the last royal residence, had become a tourist destination. Some nights he climbed over the wall and slept on the floor in one of the buildings, he said.
He told us that he’d tried nine times to commit suicide. After the publication of the newspaper story about him, Jeonju officials found him and offered him a new beginning. Now Yi lives there part-time, while also maintaining an apartment in Seoul and traveling around the country to speak about his family’s past.
“We have a beautiful history. We must not forget,” he said, exuding the confidence of a man who has finally found his life’s work.
After our visit with the prince, my husband and I went out for dinner to try some of the local makkoli, a rice wine served in a golden kettle along with enough side dishes of pickled vegetables, beef and kimchi stew to forge a meal. Back at the hotel, the heated floor had toasted the whole room, and we slept snugly – as promised — in our soft bed on the ground.
When we awoke, snow sparkled on the tiled roofs, and we wandered through Jeonju village, which is a monument to traditional architecture and food as well as to the royal family. We roamed narrow roads past small wooden buildings marked with signs in elegantly carved Hanja, Chinese characters that predate Korea’s alphabet.
We visited art galleries, teahouses and wine shops, and sampled the bibimbap, a favorite Korean dish of mixed rice, vegetables and beef, which is famous in this agricultural region. Later, we met a local couple and shared hanjeongsik, a feast of elaborately prepared small plates, including smoked fish, grilled beef, glass noodles and soybean soup.
Before we left on the evening of the second day, we visited a portrait gallery that featured Joseon kings with wispy long beards and ornate headdresses. And we climbed a hill above the village, following a path that the prince said he likes to take in the mornings, to pay tribute to his ancestors in a richly painted pavilion where Yi Seong-gye had once celebrated a military victory against the Japanese, before taking over his country.
Back in Seoul, we continued to trace the prince’s royal roots. We visited Gyeongbuk Palace, the palace of “Shining Happiness.” It was the first royal residence built in the new capital, and it still commands some of the city’s best real estate, between the president’s Blue House and city hall. At the National Folk Museum, which shares the sprawling complex, we met an eager English-speaking tour guide who walked us through 2,000 years of royal history.
Four more palaces remain in the heart of the old city. Changdeok Palace is the best preserved: Nearly a third of the original buildings have been restored, and the garden next to the palace grounds fills with blossoms every spring. We visited Jongmyo shrine, where tablets commemorating former kings and queens are preserved, and walked through nearby Insadong, the neighborhood where Yi Seok grew up, which is now loaded with teahouses and ceramics shops.
Other glimpses of Seoul’s imperial origins were easy to stumble upon while shopping. The pagoda-shaped gates of the original walled city are surrounded by busy markets. Dongdaemun, the eastern gate built by the first Joseon king in the 14th century, is still standing, near a concentration of neon-trimmed malls and open-air night markets. Namdaemun gate is under renovation, but the centuries-old wholesale market nearby is a good place to bargain for souvenirs. We found remnants of the wall itself on a hike up one of the mountains behind the Blue House, part of a network of wooded trails that circle the city.
We also found plenty of places to get lost — as the prince had — in a more modern Seoul, in a dark jazz bar in Itaewon, near the U.S. military base, or in one of the city’s ubiquitous bathhouses, where we went for a soak and an exfoliating scrub but opted not to stay all night.
The prince told us that he feels “happy and free” at his donated home in Jeonju, but he has his sights set on Seoul. He wants to bring a symbolic monarchy back to Korea and to live in a palace once again, “if only to attract tourists,” he said.
But for us, the journey away from Seoul to his family’s humbler beginnings was the best part of the trip.