She was born royal, victimized by history and died in solitude ― having lost her country and sanity.
The life story of Deokhye (1912 - 1989), the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty, is a tragedy that reflects the wretched fate of Korea's last monarchy. More than 20 years after her death, her life, once written out of history, is making a comeback in different forms and ways.
On Thursday, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage published a book chronicling about 50 pieces of clothing and personal belongings worn by the Princess, along with 150 other Korean costumes from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. The pieces are currently owned by Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum in Tokyo, Japan.
The pieces and artifacts include royal infant hanbok garments, a dressing stand, many pairs of silver spoons, a gilded fortune pocket and a pair of high heel shoes.
It was Kim Young-sook, a traditional costume scholar, who first identified that the pieces once belonged to Deokhye when she visited the Japanese museum in 1982 as part of her personal research. "I recognized the pieces among piles of other collected costumes from all over the world; the museum staff had no idea where the pieces were from," Kim told The Korea Herald.
"It was amazingly fascinating and touching to see the royal infant clothes that the Princess wore as a child. I knew right away they were hers ― they even matched with her photos," the 83-year-old scholar said.
Though Kim had presented her findings at an academic forum in the 1980s ― while informing the Japanese museum of the same ― not many paid attention. After keeping her research strictly personal for more than 25 years, Kim finally asked the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea for support a few years ago, formally reporting to them about the princess and her items at Bunka Gakuen. The report on Deokhye's clothes and belongings is the result of a two-year joint collaboration between Kim and the government.
"I appreciate their help very much," Kim said. "It wouldn't have been possible with my limited budget and resources. The work has been very meaningful."
Park Dae-nam, senior researcher of the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, said the belongings of the Princess are believed to have been donated by her half-brother, Imperial Crown Prince Uimin, and his wife Crown Princess Yi Bangja. "It is expected that the royal couple was suffering financially," Park told The Korea Herald. "They even donated their own royal pieces of clothing to Tokyo National Museum."
Apart from the published report, Kim Young-sook has been preparing a non-fiction book of her own, assembling all of her personal, extensive research on Princess Deokhye. The book will include poems and songs that the Princess wrote while she was attending school in Tokyo, which Kim obtained during her long research stay in Japan. "Princess Deokhye was extremely talented in writing ― she was a very smart student," Kim told The Korea Herald. "Most of her pieces were about her home country and the royal palace, and how much she missed them," she added.
Last year, "Princess Deokhye," the first piece of fiction ever written on the late Princess, was published on Dec. 14. The historical novel has been doing extremely well, selling over 500,000 copies in the past eight months. It was ranked as the top bestseller in every recognized bookstore back in January. "The research part was very difficult because there were almost zero resources available," Kwon Bi-young, the author of the book, told The Korea Herald. "I'm glad that more information about the Princess is being released. At the same time, though, I am still saddened by the life that Deokhye had to live."
Princess Deokhye was born in 1912, two years after Joseon was annexed by Japan. Adored and doted on by her father, Emperor Gojong, the youngest daughter of the royal family attended a kindergarten at Deoksu Palace, established exclusively for her. At age 12, however, only six years after Gojong's death, Deokhye was taken to Japan and went to school in Tokyo. There, she suffered from bullying and cultural differences.
At age 19, she was forced to marry Japanese Count So Takeyuki. While suffering from mental illness and an unhappy marriage, she gave birth to her daughter, Masae, in 1932. The princess' life took another tragic turn when her daughter went missing, and her health condition worsened. She was sent to a mental hospital, and finally divorced her husband in 1953.
She returned to Korea at the invitation of the Park Chung-hee government in 1962. Deokhye led an isolated life in Nakseon Hall, Changdeok Palace, till her low-profile death in 1989.
"I'd like to live in Nakseon Hall for a long, long time," the late Princess wrote a few years prior to her death, when her mental condition momentarily improved.
"Brother, sister-in-law, I miss you. Korea, our country."