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May 20, 2006
The Saturday Profile
A Prince Nestled Once More in Korea's Embrace
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Chonju, South Korea
FOR a man who once ran a liquor store in Southern California and lived in a used car during a bout of homelessness three years ago, Yi Seok had a remarkably full day of official duties before him.
Lunch with the mayor. Afternoon art exhibition with politicians. Evening banquet. Opening ceremony of this city's annual film festival. Sleep. Breakfast meeting with the minister of culture.
A fitting schedule, surely, for Mr. Yi, 65, a descendant of the Chosun Dynasty, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1392 to 1910, when the Japanese established colonial rule. Due recognition indeed for the last prince still living on Korean soil, the last pretender to an abolished throne.
Yet it had taken a bitterly long time, nearly a lifetime, for that respect to come. The peninsula's tumultuous century had robbed Mr. Yi and other royals of their titles, expelled them from their palaces and sent many abroad.
Among them, Mr. Yi has led perhaps the most checkered life, from his birth and fall as a royal prince; his rise as the "Singing Prince" on American military bases; his comeback as an illegal immigrant in the United States; and his fall as a failed monk and homeless man.
The most recent act, one of redemption, began in October 2004 when the city of Chonju, the birthplace of the dynasty, built him a house and made him its unofficial symbol.
"I feel as if I've come home to mother," Mr. Yi said as he walked around his neighborhood, dressed in a gold-colored robe and wearing a white mouth mask against the yellow dust blowing in from the Gobi Desert.
Looking something like an aging Jackie Chan, Mr. Yi took the mask off when he saw a group of schoolgirls, basking in their squeals and posing for photos with them. A woman in a car bowed to him, but others passed by with no sign of recognition.
"These are all my lovely people," Mr. Yi said, in English, with a smile.
BY the time Mr. Yi was born in 1941, the royal family had long been stripped of its authority under Japanese rule. Mr. Yi was the grandson of Emperor Gojong and the nephew of his successor, Emperor Sunjong, Korea's last monarch. He grew up in Sadong Palace in Seoul, where court ladies waited on him.
"At school, I wasn't allowed to exercise, so the principal had to run for me," he said.
With the division of the peninsula in 1948, South Korea's first government abolished the monarchy and stripped the royal family of its assets. Many Koreans believe not only that the Chosun Dynasty's misrule led to Japanese colonialism, but also that many royals collaborated with the occupiers.
After majoring in Spanish in college, Mr. Yi earned a living by singing. He became known as the Singing Prince, performing such songs as "Tonight" from "West Side Story" on American military bases.
He went to Vietnam to entertain Korean troops and suffered a shoulder injury, he said, when his convoy was attacked. Back home, his singing career reached its peak in 1967 with "Nest of Doves," a song about domestic bliss: "If you're as intimate as doves, then build the kind of home where you'll be entwined in love."
Known to this day by every South Korean, the song became a staple at weddings — Mr. Yi boasts he has performed at 7,000 of them — though his success displeased his family. "A prince has become a clown," an aunt told Mr. Yi, who then gave up performing.
A cousin, Yi Hyun Hyang, 82, recalled that other royals were swindled and struggled to earn a living.
"But I think Yi Seok was the smartest of the royal family because he knew how to survive and earn money, even if it was through singing," she said.
Though impoverished, the former royals had been allowed to stay in their palaces. But after Maj. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan seized power in a military coup in 1979, they were expelled and scattered, mostly to the United States.
Arriving in Los Angeles on a tourist visa, Mr. Yi stayed and lived the ups and downs of an immigrant with few marketable skills. He worked as a gardener. He cleaned pools in Beverly Hills. In a marriage of convenience, he paid $15,000, he said, to a Korean-American woman for a Las Vegas wedding and a green card.
Together, they ran Eddy's Liquor Store, where Mr. Yi greeted customers with, "Gimme five, man!" His college Spanish also helped him establish friendly ties with Mexican-Americans. The store was robbed 15 times, he added.
An aunt's funeral brought him back to South Korea in 1989, and he decided to stay, becoming the Chosun Dynasty's last male heir in Korea. (His son, from one of his three marriages, lives in the United States.)
In Seoul, after guards barred him from re-entering his old palace, he climbed over the wall and squatted inside for several days.
"My suit got damp from the humidity, and I thought I'd get sick, so eventually I left," Mr. Yi said.
TIME passed. He flitted from place to place. A friend sometimes gave him $10,000 at a time, Mr. Yi's cousin said. He lived in a temple for a few years with the intention of becoming a monk, but he would go out drinking late and return to find the temple door closed.
"I attempted suicide eight times," Mr. Yi recalled. "I was getting old. Nobody recognized me. They wouldn't give me a home in the palace."
He was going through a particularly bad stretch in 2003, living mostly in bathhouses and contemplating suicide again, when a reporter tracked him down. The reporter, Lee Beom Jin, of the Weekly Chosun, wrote an article in May with the title "Last Prince Yi Seok Sojourning in Chimchil-bang," or bathhouse.
Humiliated, Mr. Yi began sleeping instead in his battered car.
The article, though, led to his comeback. Chonju City — which had been trying to build up its tourism industry and wanted to highlight its ties to the Chosun Dynasty — offered him a house in its historic section. The city and supporters in the newly formed Imperial Grandson Association went to work.
A local hotel put him up. A fashion designer gave him a makeover. Kang Kyeong Chang, a dentist, began the process of implanting 10 new teeth.
Mr. Yi now gives lectures on the royal family at various universities. The night before, after a lecture in Seoul, he had driven his car five hours to return here, at 5 a.m., to his three-room house.
With only a few hours' sleep, by the time the opening ceremony for the seventh annual Chonju International Film Festival began at 7 p.m., Mr. Yi was tired. Perhaps because of fatigue, perhaps because he did not attract squeals from the young film fans on either side of the red carpet, he sat quietly in his chair.
After the ceremony, Mr. Yi got into the front passenger seat of a black sedan driven by one of his supporters, Jang Young Il.
As he began driving, Mr. Jang said he had been unable to park the car in the basement. A guard had told him basement parking was "only for stars."
"I told him: 'Yi Seok is a star. He sang "Nest of Doves," ' " Mr. Jang told Mr. Yi.
Mr. Yi sat silently. "It's O.K.," he said finally, speaking softly into his mouth mask. "That was a long time ago."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company