Californian techie becomes Korean crown prince in fairytale twist

Andrew Lee, a Korean-American and self-confessed introvert, was quietly building a successful California tech company before he was unexpectedly named Crown Prince of Korea and suddenly thrust into the limelight. 

The tech entrepreneur’s story is a fairytale of the modern age. Until his inauguration in October – at a “Passing of the Sword” ceremony in a Beverley Hills restaurant 5,945 miles from Seoul – Mr Lee, 34, was living an uneventful suburban American life with his wife Nana Lee and their two small children. 

Earlier this year, in a dramatic twist worthy of a Disney plot, a distant relative, King Yi Seok, 77, the nominal emperor of the Joseon dynasty, known in turn as the “singing prince” and “the last pretender to an abolished throne” had nominated Mr Lee as next in line for the crown.

The king, who promotes tourism and teaches history in the South Korean city of Jeonju in between ceremonial duties, had chosen Mr Lee on account of his “positive energy.”

The young Californian, however, is still more accustomed to wearing a black baseball cap than bejeweled headware, admitting in an interview that he is slowly coming to terms with what his new role as successor to Korea’s imperial throne will actually mean. 

King Yi Seok hands Andrew Lee a ceremonial sword at his inauguration as Crown Prince of Korea

“I’m not going to lie, it was very cool but it was also pretty scary because I wasn’t exactly sure what it entailed,” he said in his relaxed California drawl. 

“In time I knew that once it became public my responsibility for how I act and the decisions I make wouldn’t necessarily just be my own any more,” he said. 

He has few illusions about receiving an enthusiastic welcome from modern South Koreans who have long since forgotten a five-century-old royal dynasty that ended with the Japanese occupation of the peninsula in 1910, and even a visit to the North will be impossible for the foreseeable future. 

But Mr Lee still has a big vision for how he can give the imperial throne a modern makeover and his family can use their newfound privileged position to benefit the population of a country he has visited only four times and whose language he barely speaks. 

“We’re in no way the imperial family of the past, we’re not like rulers, we’re soldiers that are standing on the front line with our fellow brethren,” he said. 

Palace guards stand at Gyeongbok Palace, the main palace of the Joseon dynastyCredit:
Ahn Young-joon/AP

At the heart of the royal comeback is a plan to create a free coding school for Koreans and for a $100 million fund for entrepreneurs who want to launch their own start-up funds. 

His inspiration, he said, stemmed from the story of how his ancestor, King Sejong the Great, who ruled from 1418-1450, profoundly impacted the country’s history by creating hangul, the phonetic writing system for the Korean language, in order to make the population literate. 

“He realised that the only people who could read and write were rich and could afford the time to learn… His solution was to make a super-easy language that everyone could understand,” said Mr Lee, who sees parallels in 2018 with the need to understand technology.

“I do think that everyone needs to speak the language of technology because that’s the direction that we’re going in. If you don’t speak technology then you’re illiterate,” he said. 

The coding school will be run online and in “live lecture form”, offering the chance of smaller class sizes where students can ask questions.

Mr Lee, who co-founded the popular VPN service Private Internet Access, will teach. 

Visitors shelter from snow at Seoul's Gyeongbok palace, once the home of the Joseon dynastyCredit:
Ahn Young-soon/AP

His imperial fund project – intended to set budding entrepreneurs free from the traditional career expectations of South Korea’s conservative society – is equally, if not more, ambitious. 

South Koreans generally felt pressured to follow a tough study regime to gain a place at one of the large conglomerates that had helped to build the economy and now wielded so much control, he argued. 

“Basically, people feel like they have to be obedient, go to school, follow all the rules, join a conglomerate and then follow rules again for the rest of their lives,” he said. 

“We believe that if we give people proper funding then they can actually take the risk to pursue an entrepreneurial.”

Mr Lee plans to commit $10m towards the fund, and hopes to find “like-minded investors” to make up the difference to $100m.  “People need to just pursue what they want to do and their whole life could change. Whatever they make could change the world,” he said.   

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