We often imagine princesses leading charmed lives filled with romance, adventure and riches. However, this was not the case for Deokhye, the last princess of Korea. At a young age she endured discrimination and exile. For a while, she even disappeared from the public consciousness altogether, only to resurface in the unlikeliest of places. Read on to learn more about Korea’s forgotten princess...
Deokhye was born into dazzling privilege. After all, her father was Emperor Gojong of the united Korea, which meant that from the moment the little girl came into the world in 1912, she was already a whole lot luckier than most people. Still, don't’ get it twisted—Deokhye may have had a silver spoon in her mouth, but her childhood was no fairy tale.
See, even though Deokhye was the daughter of an Emperor, her mother wasn’t royalty at all. Instead, mommy dearest was merely a “royal concubine,” which meant her status was zilch and her only function was to serve the Emperor...who already had a wife. Okay, fine, champagne problems—but this had a huge effect on little Deokhye.
Until the Emperor's daughter was five years old, she had no name. Yep, you read that right! For the first five years of her life Deokhye's parents did not refer to her by any given name, or even a royal title. This was because of her mother’s status as a commoner. Not an auspicious beginning. But there was another, far worse reason for this bizarre ritual.
In addition to her mother’s low status, Deokhye grew up with another complication: Japan basically owned her kingdom, and her family had no real power. Still, they didn’t know how bad it would get: in 1910, Japan formally took over the country. Guess what? They were not kind to Deokhye or her family. Indeed, their acts were downright horrific.
The Japanese occupiers did not want to recognize Deokhye’s existence, so much so that they were the reason Deokhye had no name for so long. Her father begged them to let him give her a name, but they refused until she was five years old. Despite her dad's wealth and status, growing up under these conditions probably had a devastating effect on Deokhye’s confidence.
The odds were stacked against Deokhye, but she defied them from the start. Everyone saw that at a young age, the initially nameless child was very intelligent. Deokhye's father the king wanted to encourage her to develop her talents, so he built an entire kindergarten just for her. In time, the little girl would be grateful for her rigorous education. As we'll see, she'd need all her wits to survive.
Princess Deokhye was very popular with the Korean people. You can’t really blame them for adoring her—if you look at pictures of Deokhye as a child, it’s clear that she was super cute. The Japanese rulers took notice of her potential power as a symbol for the Korean people and started hatching some chilling plans. Little Deokhye had no idea what they had in store for her.
Deokhye's father, however, knew what was up. He could tell that the Japanese occupiers were plotting over what to do with his daughter, so he decided that he'd throw a wrench in their plans. He figured that the best way to protect Deokhye would be to marry her off, even though she was, y'know, still a child at the time. Unfortunately, Japan had other ideas...
Japan didn’t like the idea of Deokhye escaping from their grasp and coming under the protection of another family, so they did what any tyrant country would do: They canceled her child bride marriage. Okay, maybe Deokhye could have cared less about this, but her family was sure upset. And then, an even worse tragedy struck. Deokhye’s father passed suddenly in 1919—and the reason for his demise was anything but ordinary.
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Losing your father when you're just seven years old is hard. But Deokhye had more than just grief to deal with. Soon after her father passed, dark rumors began to swirl throughout Korea. People believed that the Emperor's demise was decidedly unnatural, with some saying he was poisoned by Japanese officials who were tired of dealing with his shenanigans. Not that Deokhye had much time to mourn…
Immediately after her father’s passing, the Japanese decided the royal Deokhye was too dangerous to keep in Korea, and they sent her away to Japan. For a child of seven, life changes are often difficult. They can be especially difficult when one of your parents has just died, and you’re sent to a completely different country by the people who (allegedly) poisoned him. So yeah, Deokhye had it rough. She had no idea when she would return to Korea, if ever.
In Tokyo, Deokhye was a quiet, awkward student, which we all probably would be too if we had to deal with her nightmarish life. She desperately wanted to return home, but the Japanese wanted to keep a watchful eye and prevent the Korean people from rallying around her. In 1929, she finally got permission to go back to Korea. But this wasn’t for a vacation. It was for another personal tragedy.
Tragedy comes in threes—or in Deokhye’s case, in scores and scores and scores. In 1929, Deokhye’s mother Lady Boknyeong passed. The Japanese government was fine with isolating Deokhye from her family, but decided that preventing her from attending her mother’s funeral would be a tad too cruel, so they let her attend, as a treat. But don't get it twisted: They continued to be mean to her, even at the funeral.
As if the pain of being exiled from her homeland and separated from her family was not enough, Deokhye’s captors decided to humiliate her at her mother’s funeral. They told her that she couldn’t wear the traditional clothes that the occasion required, which went against all of her family traditions and probably made her feel deeply ashamed. And they didn’t allow her to stick around afterwards—they whisked her straight back to Japan, where her torment continued.
When she returned to Tokyo, Deokhye went to live with her half brother Yi Un. Technically, Yi Un was king of Korea—but he was a king without a crown. Like Deokhye herself, he was pretty much a prisoner in Tokyo, where he attended compulsory military school. In other words, he had no clout—and sadly, that meant that he couldn't help his sister even when her mental health took a serious toll.
When she returned to Japan from her mother’s funeral, Princess Deokhye began to display unusual symptoms. Apparently, it started with sleepwalking, but it quickly escalated into worse behavior. Soon enough, Deokhye began to sometimes forget to eat or drink, and it became serious enough that she had to go see a doctor. Their diagnosis was chilling.
After thoroughly examining her, the doctors diagnosed the princess of Korea with dementia praecox—which in today’s terms means schizophrenia. This condition, and indeed most mental illness, wasn’t well-understood at the time. Yet instead of taking this as impetus to return the poor girl home, her captors decided on a different route.
In addition to her struggles with mental health, Deokhye also struggled with fitting into her new country. Japanese nobles ostracized her, because in their view she was not an equal. Her captors decided that the best way to make her fit would be by marrying her to a Japanese Count in 1931. Still, before the new couple said “I do”, there was time for an objection.
Unsurprisingly, Deokhye’s brother was opposed to her marrying the Count. After all, not only did his sister barely know her groom, she was also in the midst of a complete mental breakdown. He was successful in delaying Deokhye’s wedding until she got better...but even he couldn’t stop it. In spite of his efforts, the wedding went through anyway.
The thing is, there was another unsettling motive behind Deokhye’s marriage. You would think that the appropriate person to marry a princess to would be some other royalty, but the count was only a minor noble. And that was exactly how the Japanese liked it: The entire purpose of marrying Deokhye to this stranger was to make it clear that the Korean royal family were not the equals of the Japanese Emperor.
Wow, I’m sure this did not make things awkward between Deokhye and her husband at all.
Obviously, people back home in Korea were just as incensed about Deokhye’s wedding as her brother, and there was a lot of false reporting about the fate of their exiled princess. One report claimed that the Emperor had forced Deokhye to marry a hunchbacked dwarf, but that's just not true. Her new hubby was of average height and didn't have a hunchback either.
But still, the real story of their marriage might have shocked people even more than all these salacious rumors.
Look, the count wasn’t all bad. Deokhye’s new husband Count Takeyuki was was gentle and sensitive, plus he ruled over an entire island, which doesn't sound too shabby at all. In addition, he was also an accomplished poet, and he dedicated several poems to his blushing new bride. At first, Princess Deokhye was happy with her marriage, but sadly, the good times didn't last for very long.
In spite of the fact that Count Takeyuki tried to be nice to Deokhye, he couldn’t help the fact that their marriage was an attempt to humiliate Deokhye and assimilate her into Japanese society. Which, yeah, that’s a lot to deal with. But there was a bigger problem too: The treatment for her mental illness was expensive. This caused their initial cautious happiness to give way to all-consuming resentment.
In spite of her increasingly unhappy marriage to Count Takeyuki, the couple had a daughter in 1932. Her Japanese name was Masae (Jeonghye in Korean) and her mother loved her very much and tried to do her best by her. Unfortunately, Deokhye wasn’t able to be the best mother to the little girl, because tragedy was about to come back into her life with a vengeance.
In 1933, Princess Deokhye had to enter a hospital to receive treatment for her increasingly serious mental health issues. Some of her issues included aphasia, which was an impaired ability to communicate. This proved to be the first of many long periods of institutionalization for Princess Deokhye, and it caused her to miss many of her daughter’s formative years. Did this set the stage for an unhealthy relationship? You bet.
Deokhye's absence throughout her daughter’s early childhood was probably the catalyst for their troubled relationship. In addition, Masae felt caught between being Korean and Japanese, and this caused her significant inner conflict. Sadly, she started to hate her mother for who she was, because Japanese society still looked down on her Korean heritage.
As if Deokhye didn’t have enough to deal with on the home front, there was also an international crisis looming. Japan entered WWII on the Axis side in 1941. Deokhye’s brother actually served in the Japanese army during this period, until Japan ultimately surrendered in 1945. Suddenly, Deokhye’s future was uncertain once more.
After the conflict was over, Japan’s culture got turned upside down with the Allies completely abolishing the Japanese aristocracy. This was actually a big problem for Deokhye, since her husband now had no title, no political power, and no money. This crisis only added to the tensions that were already growing in the couple's household...
In the end, the Count called time on his marriage to Deokhye. They’d had a few good years together, but for the most part, these two had been unhappy for a very long time. The pair called it quits eventually and got a divorce in 1953. At that time, any divorce was going to be scandalous—but the Count and Deokhye's break-up was more dramatic than most...
Deokhye had spent all her life being a good little girl under Japanese rule, but her split from the Count was her official welcome party into rebellion. Because divorce was very uncommon in Japan at the time (especially among high society circles), the split raised more than a few eyebrows. Even more scandalous, however, was the way that the Count broke up with our girl...
Count Takeyuki dumped poor Deokhye in the worst possible way. He did it while she was in the hospital undergoing treatment for her plummeting mental health. So much for tact! And to pour salt on his ex-wife's wounded heart, the Count struck up another romantic relationship very soon after leaving Deokhye in the hospital. Yeesh.
While Deokhye remained hospitalized in the wake of her divorce, her ex husband Takeyuki opted for a change of scenery. He left the island of Tsushima where he used to live with his wife and moved to Kashiwa. He met a new woman and remarried in 1955, which is moving on pretty quickly if you ask me. Unfortunately, as we’ll see later, Deokhye’s quest for love was not as successful.
Deokhye’s life was continuing to spiral downwards as she endured her divorce and constant hospitalizations, but at least she took some relief from the fact that her daughter was doing very well. She graduated from university with a degree in literature and got married in 1955. However, in the end, both Deokhye and her daughter couldn’t escape the curse of unhappiness...
Now we come to one of the most jaw-dropping parts of Princess Deokhye’s already dramatic life. One day, Deokhye’s daughter just up and disappeared. As the days turned into weeks, the hope that Masae would reappear at home started dwindling. After enough time passed, Deokhye had to accept that her daughter would never return—for a tragic reason.
Tragically, most people believe that Deokhye's daughter didn't just disappear. She took her own life. Even worse, some sources argue that Masae's emotions about her parents’ divorce played a key part in her decision to end her own life. Losing her daughter—and her only child—was utterly devastating for poor Princess Deokhye. And sadly, things would not improve.
By 1956, Deokhye was a divorcée and her only daughter was gone forever. She was in a strange country with no family except her brother, and her mental health continued to deteriorate. This was the beginning of a long, dark period of her life where Deokhye was pretty much forgotten by everyone in her home country. But changes were coming...
After the end of the Japanese occupation, Korea split into North and South Korea, and Deokhye’s brother petitioned the South Korean government to let him and his sister come home. But if you thought that they were eager to take back their royal family, you’d be wrong. The new nation of South Korea was a republic, and they thought that bringing the royal family back might pose a threat to the country’s stability.
For the time being, Deokhye and her brother were trapped in Japan. It would take a twist of fate to bring them back..
In 1961, South Korea finally changed its mind and decided it should reconnect with its heritage. Accordingly, they were eager to let the royal family come back home after decades in tragedy, shame, and exile. They reached out to find their long-lost Princess Deokhye, only to find a disturbing truth: No one knew where she had gone. Thus, a mystery was born.
Supporters of the former Korean monarchy sought out the Deokhye’s location for years, but unfortunately for them the trail had gone cold. When a reporter finally solved the mystery, they revealed a heartbreaking truth: She was still in a mental hospital. But if you think that's the wildest twist in Princess Deokhye's story, just you wait...
The reporter who rescued Deokhye from the mental hospital was a South Korean man named Kim Eul Han, and he just so happened to be the younger brother of the little boy that Deokhye’s father wanted her to marry all those years ago! It was a remarkable coincidence and thanks to her almost-brother-in-law's help, the conditions were ripe for Deokhye to finally return home.
Princess Deokhye finally returned to Korea for good in 1962, after 38 long, hard years in exile. Sadly, her valiant return may not have been all she hoped for. The country had changed significantly over the years she had been away, and many of her friends and family were no longer there. But when Deokhye arrived in Seoul, she encountered some familiar faces.
The South Korean government decided that the return of Deokhye did not mean a return of the monarchy. Deokhye returned as an ordinary citizen, rather than a princess. However this didn’t stop her old court ladies from greeting her at the airport and bowing to her as if she was still royalty. It was an emotional moment for her—and unfortunately also a humiliating one.
Apart from her ladies in waiting, there was also a small army of reporters waiting for Deokhye when she arrived in Korea. The paparazzi bombarded her with photos and questions, but she stared blankly back at them. They didn’t know about her cognitive decline, and as soon as it was apparent it became a topic of national gossip. Deokhye was not in any state to give interviews, or even to return to a normal life.
Even though Korea’s last princess was finally back where she belonged, the years had taken their toll on her. Deokhye’s cognitive decline continued at a rapid pace, and she was unable to look after herself immediately upon returning home. Initially, she stayed at Seoul National University Hospital. She stayed there for a decade before her schizophrenia improved enough to leave.
After a lifetime of pain, Deokhye was finally able to scrape together some sense of peace for herself in her final years. Even though there was no more Korean monarchy, she lived in Changdeok Palace in Seoul, with her brother Yi Un and his family. However, she could only enjoy these peaceful days for a short while until her eventual passing.
In 1989, when she was 76 years old, Deokhye passed in Changdeok Palace. With her last breaths, the world lost more than one woman; they also lost the last princess of the Joseon dynasty. Sadly, at the end of her life the aphasia returned in full force, so her ability to communicate was severely impaired. Thankfully, however, the princess gathered enough strength to declare her heartbreaking last words.
Deokhye’s last words were "I missed my motherland even while I was in my country." These tragic last words spoke to her experience as an exiled princess returning to a new country—by the time she finally returned, Korea was pretty much beyond all recognition for her. She was technically home, but she never regained her sense of her place in the word.
After Deokhye’s passing, her story was widely unknown, since the monarchy was no longer relevant to the everyday lives of South Koreans. But that all changed in 2010. That year, a novel called The Last Princess hit the shelves, and. Its success led to a renewed interest in Deokhye’s life. Soon, this book turned into the 2016 film The Last Princess as well as a musical production.
While the movie and musical adaptations of Deokhye’s life brought her story back to popular consciousness, some of the details changed for political reasons. For example, the movie showed Korean independence fighters trying to rescue Deokhye from captivity. As we've seen, this definitely didn’t happen in Deokhye's real life.
Unfortunately, Deokhye is still not treated as an equal even in the memories of her people. Her second name in Korea is still Ongju (daughter of the concubine), rather than Gongju (daughter of the king).
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