Lee Hae-kyung, 91, the granddaughter of King Gojong and the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty, has been chosen as the winner of the 28th “Proud Kyunggi Alumni” award by the graduates’ association of Kyunggi Girls’ High School. The association has recognized her contributions in discovering and organizing data from the Joseon Dynasty and calling for the retrieval of Korean artifacts from abroad.
Born in 1930 as the fifth daughter of King Gojong’s second son Prince Yi Kang (1877-1955), Ms. Lee is currently residing in New York. As a child, she lived in Sadonggung Palace, the residence of Prince Yi Kang, in Jongno, Seoul. After Korea’s liberation from the Japanese colonial rule, Ms. Lee graduated from Kyunggi Girls’ High School and then Ewha Women’s University, majoring in music. She went to the U.S. to study while working as a music teacher at Poongmoon Girls’ High School in 1956. At that time, she had a plane ticket and only $80 with her, the money got from selling her cherished piano.
Ms. Lee majored in vocal music at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, receiving a full scholarship and graduated in 1959. Due to her status as an illegal immigrant, however, Ms. Lee could not get a decent job after graduation and worked at restaurants, sold kimchi, and worked as a nanny instead. In 1969, in recognition of her experience of working as a librarian at the 8th U.S. Army library, she landed a job as a librarian at Columbia University’s East Asian Library. From then on, Ms. Lee began to work to reestablish historical awareness and request the retrieval of artifacts.
Ms. Lee worked to discover documents from Joseon that had been hidden all over the U.S. for 27 years until she retired as the director of Korean Studies at the East Asian Library in 1996. She also engaged in activities related to the royal family of the Joseon Dynasty, such as disclosing a record of her father’s independence movement with young Koreans in the U.S. while he was studying at Roanoke College in Virginia, and publishing a memoir titled, “My Father, Prince Yi Kang” in 1997.
Ms. Lee also made efforts in retrieving Korean artifacts abroad. She sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013, requesting that the helmet and armor of King Gojong at the Tokyo National Museum be returned to Korea. It was her, who planned the movement to recover former Korean legation in Washington, D.C. In 2003, she donated royal relics, such as wonsam (ceremonial robe), dangui (upper garment in hanbok), long skirt, and ceremonial coronet that Queen Uichin gave to her to celebrate the opening of Kyungwoon Musuem at her alma mater. After winning the award, Ms. Lee said she just did her best for herself and those around her, not contribute to society.
Kim Jo-ja, a professor emeritus at Yonsei University’s College of Nursing, was also chosen as “Proud Kyunggi Alumni” along with Ms. Lee. Professor Kim, who served as the president of the Nursing Association in 2006, has been recognized for her contribution in nursing education and health policy development, such as making efforts to enact the Nursing Act. The award ceremony will be held at the 100th Anniversary Memorial Hall of Kyunggi Girls’ High School on Saturday.