Eui-hwa: most progressive, anti-Japanese prince
This is the second of a two-part article about two Korean princes during the later years of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). ― ED.
By Robert Neff
While Sunjong may have been disparaged by those around him, his younger half-brother, Prince Eui-hwa, was loved by one and all — especially the American press. (The prince’s Korean name was Yi Kang but later he was usually called King Uichin.)
He was born on March 30, 1877, but, because his mother was a court lady-in-waiting, it was not until 1892 that he became a legitimate titled prince following a decree issued by his father — King Gojong.
There was very little written about him by the Westerners in Seoul until August 1894 when he visited the American legation in Seoul. It was only the second time he had been in a foreign home and was fascinated with everything around him. Lillian Graham, the sister-in-law of John Sill, the American Minister to Korea, seemed a little surprised that the 17-year-old prince had already been married a year. She described him as being “rather good looking” and added that he was “said to be much brighter than the crown prince.”
She was not the only one to be impressed with the prince. Others described him as “a young man of pleasant and agreeable manners” and very popular with the foreign community. Following the assassination of Queen Min, Eui-hwa’s own position became precarious. With the queen’s defamation and denouncement by the pro-Japanese Korean government, there was the possibility that Sunjong could be replaced and, if Gojong could be removed, Eui-hwa could be declared king. It is said that the Daewongun, wanting his own grandson to ascend the throne, tried to seize Eui-hwa but the prince had managed to find refuge at the home of Horace Underwood — an American missionary.
Eui-hwa remained with the Underwoods until his safety was assured and he was promised the position of ambassador to Europe. But, prior to going to Europe, he had to study in Japan. If we are to believe the idle gossip of the Westerners residing in Seoul in the late 1890s, study did not come easy for the young prince. Women easily dominated his interests and, according to William Franklin Sands, he was “systematically debauched by a group of conspirators.”
Apparently Eui-hwa’s less-than-stellar behavior was viewed with disfavor in his royal father’s eyes and in late 1896 Gojong decided to send him to the United States. Despite the young prince’s reputed desire in going, his actions told a different tale. According to Lillas Underwood:
“It was the king’s desire that he (Eui-hwa) should go to America and, under the oversight of our board of missions, be sent to some first class educational institution where he could fit himself to enter a naval or military academy. Several abortive attempts had been made to accomplish this through friends in Japan, but insuperable difficulties seemed to arise. Perhaps the prince did not wish to go; perhaps influence was used to keep him where he was; at any rate, the prince, in spite of the king’s reiterated commands, had not gone.”
Eventually Gojong ordered the Underwoods to go to Japan where they “found the prince not very willing to go; all sorts of objections were raised, but the king’s positive commands could no longer be slighted. The finest clothing to be had was provided, debts were paid, passage arranged for.... His Royal Highness, the Prince, set sail.”
Eui-hwa’s stay in the United States was not very enjoyable. First, he stayed with a missionary family and his activities were probably under close scrutiny. Second, his monthly $100 allowance often arrived late — if at all — and he soon fell into debt with the Christian community. Much to his delight, Eui-hwa was sent back to Japan to continue his studies.
Eui-hwa returned to the United States in June 1901 to study at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., and later at Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. This time, accompanied by two subordinates, he was trusted to live on his own with an annual allowance of $4,000. Gojong had seriously misplaced his trust.
Within a short time of his arrival, the young prince squandered his allowance and a lot more. As one newspaper reported:
“The prince went to Coney Island while going through the ‘seeing New York’ process. He spent days and days there; also nights. Coney looked upon him as a good thing. The barkers, the grafters, the card sharks, even the peanut vendors took unwarranted toll of the imperial purse. Then there was of course an unlimited supply of the prince’s chief delight — the unveiled American woman. (Blond) beauties, chorus girls in tights, beach sprites in bathing suits, all attracted the prince’s attention and subtracted his coin. He gave suppers to bevies of blonds and bunches of brunettes. Champagne went down, but the price of it went up. As a consequence the prince had to borrow.”
He borrowed nearly $30,000 which greatly embarrassed the Korean legation in Washington D.C. The legation tried to downplay the incident by claiming the prince had merely “exceeded his allowance by a little” but after the debts were paid, the young prince was “entertained at the legation” for a period of time, “where he received advice calculated to do him good.”
To say that Eui-hwa was enthralled with the beauty of women would be an understatement. While at Wesleyan University he went by the nickname “Willie” and was described as “a prime favorite among the young ladies of the institution, and he avails himself of every opportunity to be in their company.” If we are to believe the articles that frequently appeared in the American press, the young prince had proposed to no less than four American women.
Horace Allen, the American Minister to Korea, was a terrible gossip and, through the efforts of relatives and friends, kept abreast of the rumors surrounding the young prince. Naturally, he was amused by the prince’s antics and after learning of one alleged relationship between the prince and a young woman from Allen’s home state — Ohio, he jokingly asked his sons, “Wonder if she knows he is a married man already?”
While Allen found the humor in Eui-hwa’s popularity amongst the American fairer sex, others didn’t — especially the young American men who felt the prince was infringing on their domain.One such young man was Joseph Stout.
In June 1903, at a small garden party in Delaware, Ohio, Stout suddenly sprang upon the prince and struck him several times rendering the Korean noble unconscious. Stout was immediately apprehended. There was some early speculation that the prince had been “making eyes” at Stout’s girlfriend and had brought the attack upon himself but this was incorrect. Stout later confessed that he had been so incensed at seeing the young prince, who he thought was Chinese, at the center of attention of so many young American women that he could not endure it, and thus attacked.
On Oct. 26, Stout acknowledged his guilt in assaulting the prince because he did not like Chinese (he was unaware of Koreans) and “thought the girls paid too much attention to the young foreign nobleman.” He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $25.
As a result of the frequent newspaper articles of Eui-hwa’s alleged amorous affairs and the fictional account of his father’s marriage to an American woman (Emily Brown), the American legation in Seoul was flooded with requests for introduction by young American women seeking to marry a Korean noble. Despite Allen’s insistence that the Korean nobles were not looking for American wives, it was sometime before the American female public desisted in their pleas.
Throughout the early 20th century there were rumors that Eui-hwa would ascend the throne in the event something happened to Gojong. A New York Times article in 1904 noted that although Eui-hwa was not the eldest son, but because his “elder brother (Sunjong) is an imbecile... (Eui-hwa) is probably destined to be the Emperor of Korea.” It alleged that there was a strong faction of Korean noblemen who wanted “to use the imbecile as a ruler and themselves enjoy control of the kingdom.” It warned that if Eui-hwa returned to Korea, “violence might be done him.”
Eui-hwa eventually returned to Korea — and he did so in style. He left the United States with “87 suits of American clothes, with a beflowered vest for every suit.” He was no longer the rash youth that he had been when he first arrived in the United States but a “well-controlled gentleman (who was) observant in perception, retentive in memory, and a diligent reader of passing history.” He had prepared himself for the responsibilities of assuming reign of the Korean government but that opportunity never came.
Even though the Japanese provided Eui-wha with a huge annual allowance (one report claims $770,000), he became “the most anti-Japanese member of the royal family” and attempted to support Korea’s independence movement in 1919. He even tried to escape to Shanghai — the seat of the Korean Provisional Government — but was captured at the train station in Antung, China (just across the Yalu River) and returned to Korea where he remained under police surveillance. His despair was reportedly so great that “he sought to dispel his sorrow with women and liquor.” His family eventually consisted of his wife, a large number of concubines, twelve sons and nine daughters.
Following Korea’s liberation from Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, Eui-hwa’s situation grew worse. He was stripped of his royal status and was forced to sell off most of his worldly goods — including his Cadillac in order to make ends meet.
In an interview in February 1946, Eui-hwa moaned, “I’m worse off than a laborer. In fact, I’m broke.” When questioned about what he did with his share of the $120,000 given to the Korean royal family by the Japanese in 1944-45, he merely explained his poverty by stating, “I always did like a good time.”
What little property remained was later seized by the South Korean government under the royal estate nationalization law in 1953.
Eui-hwa died on Aug. 15, 1955, 10 years after Korea had gained its independence. It was, perhaps, a fitting date for arguably one of the Yi Dynasty’s most progressive and anti-Japanese princes.
Robert Neff is a columnist for The Korea Times and researches Korean history.