Princess Deokhye was born on 25 May 1912 at the Changedeok Palace in Seoul as the youngest daughter of Emperor Gojong of Korea and a concubine by the name of Yang Gui-in. She wasn’t recognised as a Princess until 1917 because she was not born the daughter of a Queen. Her father had been forced to abdicate in 1907, and he had been succeeded by his son and Deokhye’s half-brother Emperor Sunjong. The Empire ended in 1910 when it was annexed by Japan. Her father was already 59 when she was born, but he was delighted by her, and she became the darling of the nation.
She was entered into the registry of the Imperial Family in 1917 after her father persuaded the Governor-General of Korea. Her father died quite suddenly on 21 January 1919. Deokhye was taken to Japan in 1925, supposedly to continue her studies. The Japanese probably preferred having the nation’s darling out of the spotlight. Although she was allowed to go to school, she was ostracised and feared for her own safety. She was only temporarily allowed to return to Korea for her mother’s funeral in 1930, but she was not given the proper clothing to wear. By early 1930, she began to suffer difficulties with her mental health, which manifested firstly with sleepwalking. She was moved to the home of her other half-brother Crown Prince Yi Un, who lived in Tokyo. Her health deteriorated further, and she often missed meals. She was diagnosed with precocious dementia – now usually called schizophrenia.
Despite this, Empress Teimei of Japan, consort of Emperor Taishō, arranged for her to marry a Japanese aristocrat, Count Sō Takeyuki. When her condition improved slightly, the marriage immediately went ahead. They were married on 8 May 1931, and she gave birth to a daughter named Masae the following year on 14 August 1932. By 1933, Deokhye was again unwell, and she was admitted to a mental hospital where she would spend many years.
When Japan was defeated in the Second World War, Korea achieved its independence once more. Japan’s nobility lost their titles, and the peerage was abolished. Deokhye and her husband were divorced in 1953, and he remarried some time in 1955. The biggest tragedy and mystery came in 1956 when her daughter ran away, leaving a letter resembling a suicide note. She was never seen again. Deokhye’s mental health suffered as a result, and she was able to return to Korea in 1962, where she was admitted to the Seoul National University Hospital. After the Korean War, Deokhye and her surviving family members were granted a small stipend. She lived in the Changdeokgung Palace with her sister-in-law, Yi Bangja. She continued to receive treatments from the hospital, but there were many things that she often did not recognise.
Princess Deokhye died on 21 April 1989 after catching a cold – she was 76 years old. By then, she had reportedly been suffering from aphasia, which means that one can not speak or understand others.