The Last Prince Of Korea

by Liz on October 31, 2012

in Opinion


Many people don’t know this — but Korea’s royal family was guaranteed into the mid-twentieth century to regain their role as monarchs if Korea was ever liberated from Japanese colonial rule. For Korea’s royals, it was only a matter of time.

The end of the second World War and the near immediate effect of the Cold War, though, dispelled any dreams of that possibility.

I’m currently researching the Daehan Empire (1897-1910) and came across this photograph of Prince Yi U (1912-1945) who was born after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and was educated and later served in the Japanese Imperial Army. (Note the uniform.)

He was intelligent. First-hand accounts testify he refused to take a second seat to his Japanese peers, excelling in the Japanese language and in his military education. And when pushed to take a Japanese princess as a spouse, he adamantly refused and instead wed a commoner, Pak Chan-ju, the daughter of Pak Young-ho, a politician and noted ‘Chin-il-pa,’ or pro-Japanese collaborator.

But the rest of Yi U’s biography remains murky. It’s plausible he worked assiduously for independence in his own way. But he worked his way up to the higher ranks of the Japanese Imperial Army, served in battalions in the Philippines and northeast China. He was, by most accounts, a loyal subject of Japan, until he met a tragic end during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

He’s also enshrined at Yasukuni, a Japanese memorial that has attracted controversy for its dedication to soldiers who died on behalf of the Emperor during the second world war.

Yi U’s mixed legacy is probably not a topic of discussion among South Korean historians, at least not on a public level. And it’s a telling sign of the kind of complicated issues surrounding the Japanese colonization of Korea that continues to this day.

  • GUMSHIP

    Dope find, respect.

  • His former home is one of my favorite spots in Seoul:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/68558939@N00/1853847761/in/photostream/

    There’s a photo of him as a kid on a horse in front of that building in the Wikipedia Korean link.

    Anyway, not sure if you’ve seen it before, but the proverbial “they” also say Yi U was secretly helping the Korean Independence Army in his capacity as an staff intelligence officer in the Japanese Imperial Army:

    http://jsj6347.blog.me/30105364473

     Sounds like BS/wishful thinking to me, but at the same time, wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. As you point out, those were complicated times.

    Sad how he died, though. Such a good-looking kid, too.

    • Liz

      Robert, I used to attend Unhyeon Yu-chi-won (kindergarten) within the premises. I  walked by the Unhyeongung Yanggwan every day so I’m quite familiar with the building.

      So gorgeous. And great pic too.

  • MaSir

    Now that is a good-lookin’ Korean brotha. Prince is right. 

  • Hello, I found your blog through the comment left in Marmot’s hole. I would note that the Jeonju Yi Clan is still in on their royalty heritage. 

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