CHONJU, South Korea (Reuters) - Prince Yi Seok, former crooner turned teacher and tourist attraction, starts a nationwide petition drive this month to restore Korea’s ancient monarchy, forced from power a century ago.
It is a paradox of this bitterly divided relic of the Cold War that communist North Korea has re-established dynastic rule while South Korea, after a period of military dictatorship, changes its presidents after a single five-year term.
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 tourism.
“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 military-controlled politics to democracy, do South Koreans care?
According to Yi, the answer is yes and he plans to collect over one 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 long-dormant 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 all 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 tourists and 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.
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 Vietnam War and was shot while fighting on the U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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 king.
If his campaign was successful, would he be king of both Koreas? Yi laughed and said, no, just the South.
“Kim Jong-il is a crazy man. He is more than a king,” he said of North Korea’s leader.