After the Japanese transformed Korea into a colony, the Joseon Dynasty’s Jeonju Yi clan were maintained as puppet rulers of the formerly independent Korean Empire. Yi Seok, grandson of Gojong and the Yi household’s successor, would be King of Korea today if not for the colonial period and ensuing years of war and division of the Korean peninsula brought on by both World War II and the Korean War.
Far from royal, Yi’s mother once sold noodles and he used to sing songs for American officers, earning 8,000 won a month. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Yi Seok and his four brothers were allowed to live in a former imperial palace until they were ordered out at gunpoint by troops loyal to dictator General Chun Doo-hwan in December 1979 who had overthrown previous dictator Park Chung-hee.
He later immigrated to America where he married and owned a liquor store in California. After a peripatetic lifestyle following a car crash in South Korea, Jeonju, the town of his dynasty’s namesake, gifted him with a house where he lives to this day. A modern serial on television, “The King: Two Hearts,” imagines what life in Korea could have possibly been like under a monarchy, a history far removed from the present day division and enmity between North and South Korea.