Korean-American Andrew Lee was just your typical rich, self-made technopreneur who was suddenly thrust into the world’s headlines in 2018 when he was announced as the Crown Prince of South Korea. He’s apparently related to Yi Seok – one of two pretenders to South Korea’s Joseon dynasty throne.
However, prior to being royalty, Andrew was already living an extraordinary lifestyle. While his net worth is not known, he sold his VPN company, Private Internet Access, for US$95 million – just like a real-life version of Han Ji-pyeong in Netflix’s K-drama Start-Up. Then he bought a sprawling 8 hectare property in South California for a cool US$12.6 million.
Even though Andrew’s inauguration was a surprise – given that he’s an American who lived in Las Vegas when he found out his ties to the royal family in 2018 – the story behind Yi Seok (the one who nominated him prince) is not so different from your usual Korea historical dramas. It’s a mix of palace conspiracies and shocking romances.
Like a Korean historical drama
If you’ve watched Korean historical dramas (or sageuk), you may be familiar with the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and if you know your Asian history, you’ll also know that Korea’s royal family ruled up until 1910 upon the signing of the Japan-Korean Treaty, when the Japanese took over the peninsula. While the treaty was made null and void just after the end of WWII, the Imperial royal family today still have no political power in South Korea even though they’re formally recognised under the new constitution.
The House of Yi (or the Yi dynasty) is the royal family of the Korean Empire descended from Yi Seong-gye, who was the founder of Joseon. The last ruling Yi royal was King Gojong (1852-1919) even though his second son, King Sunjong was (a figurehead) king for three years before Japan took over Korea. However, after WWII, the title of Imperial Crown Prince was restored to Sunjong’s brother, Yi Un. His son, Yi Ku took over the title from 1970 until his death in 2005, attracting considerable media coverage. This is when the K-drama part starts.
Because Yi Ku passed away without an heir, there were two contenders to the title: Yi Seok who was the son of Yi Un (and Yi Ku’s nephew), and Yi Won who’s Yi Seok’s nephew. While Yi Ku’s will named Yi Won his successor, the former died before the adoption process could complete, and a posthumous adoption wasn’t recognised by legislation as of 2004.
Although Yi Won’s status as Yi Ku’s successor was confirmed by the Jeonju Lee Royal Family Association in 2005, Yi Seok claimed that his late aunt (Yi Ku’s mother) named him as “first successor” in her will. So now, both Yi Won and Yi Seok are considered two pretenders to the throne.
Yi Seok is a colourful character – he was known as the “singing prince” in his early life, and is currently a tourism ambassador of Jeonju city. He’s been married and divorced four times, and is now (apparently) married to a woman said to be 18 years younger. His own father, Yi Kang was already 62 when he was born, and his mother, Lady Hong, was only 19.
In 2018, Yi Seok declared Andrew Lee, a distant relative, to be the “Korean Crown Prince”, although Andrew’s connection to the Jeonju clan have not been documented.
Who’s Andrew Lee?
Born in Indiana, Andrew Lee describes himself as a “regular dude” who’s sold several tech start-ups. He’s marketed fancy cigars, favours hip-hop gear and is a fan of bitcoin, according to Los Angeles Magazine. Andrew was declared the crown prince of Korea at a ceremony in a restaurant in Beverly Hills, attended by family, friends, and Yi Seok’s family.
According to Telegraph, Andrew had plans to launch a US$100 million fund to help entrepreneurs launch their own businesses, giving them the chance to escape from the traditional career expectations of South Korea’s conservative society. He also has plans to create a coding school for Koreans – and he would teach the classes himself.
Only time will tell if this fresh prince of Korea – who’s more in tune with crypto and hip hop culture than Korean dynasties – will live up to his princely duties. For now, he’s just probably chillin’ in his mansion in California’s Thousand Oaks.