Fierce debate over South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's decision to relocate the nation's administrative capital from Seoul to the town of Gongju is dominating the headlines. While the administration cites the urgent need for decentralisation, some see it as an attempt by the reform-minded president, who recently emerged from an impeachment crisis, to press through a bold, flagship policy. In this, there is an odd historical echo. In 1392 another leader, King Yi Taejo, relocated the country's capital from Kaesong (in North Korea today) to Seoul to break with the past and establish the legitimacy of his dynasty. For half a millennium, the city remained a royal capital - and some curious traces of that royal past still exist. Visitors to Seoul in May each year bear witness to the remains of the royal days in a bizarre spectacle: a 'royal parade', complete with palace guardsmen in fur and mail, cavalry in Mongolian armour, and court officials in coloured silk, wind in stately progress past the boutiques, fast-food restaurants, banks and multinational corporations that dominate today's ultra-modern metropolis. Part of the city's 'Hi Seoul' festival, it is an ersatz recreation of lost glory. Visitors to the starting point, Gyeongbok Palace, see high school students struggling into the guardsmen's uniforms while having goatees and moustaches applied by makeup artists. The cavalry are members of the Seoul Racing Association. The royal palanquins are not carried, but wheeled. But in the centre of this staged mass is the real thing. Swaying along in a palanquin is a small, bespectacled figure, his arms crossed in voluminous black silk sleeves, around which coil a golden dragon. His name is Yi Gu. He was never meant to have been born, but were the Republic of Korea today a monarchy, this 73-year-old would be king. His family history is long. Exactly 100 years before Columbus discovered the new world, his ancestor Yi Taejo seized power, founding the Yi dynasty. It is also tragic. In 1905, Korea fell into the clutches of a militaristic Japan. The last independent Korean king, Gojong - Yi Gu's grandfather - was forced to abdicate; his mentally handicapped son, Sunjong, was thrust on to the throne as puppet ruler. He abdicated in turn in 1910 and died in 1926, but the Japanese maintained - albeit removed from power - the Korean royals. Yi Gu's father, Yi Un, was married to the Japanese princess, Masako, in 1920. The Japanese hoped this would end the Korean royal line: Masako, they believed, was infertile. They were wrong. The couple had children - leading the Japanese doctors who had certified her infertility to commit suicide. The family lived on in Japan. In 1945, after the second world war, the US took control in Korea, installing Rhee Syngman as the South's first president. Rhee, a republican, did not invite the royals home. The establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948 effectively abolished the monarchy. Since the 14th century, Korean kings have annually paid homage to their ancestors at the Chongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine. In a solemn ceremony - which has nothing to do with tourism, but is certified as part of the world's cultural heritage by Unesco - Yi Gu pays respects to his ancestors' spirits. He is a quiet man, with a pale, somewhat sad face. He lives in a small apartment in Tokyo, on a stipend supplied by Seoul's Yi Family Association. Why does he return to Korea? 'I come back four times a year [for ceremonial purposes]. I feel I should inherit this culture; I do it for the Yi family, and for Seoul,' he said. He has lived in the US, and married an American, Julia Mullock ('Princess Julia'); the couple divorced in 1982. Fluent in Japanese and English, he speaks little Korean, but said: 'I consider myself Korean. When I die, I will be buried here alongside my ancestors.' When seeing the extant monarchies of Japan and Thailand, how does he feel? 'I have no regrets.' Could Korea's royal house ever be restored? 'I don't think of that at all.' But Yi Gu is not the only royal descendant still living. Another family member is more outspoken - and blue blood doesn't stop him from seeing red. 'I was born and grew up in a mansion,' said Yi Seok, 65, the son of King Gojong's second son, who recently granted this reporter an interview on the grounds of Seoul's Deoksu Palace. Unlike his cousin Yi Gu, he was raised in Korea. 'At elementary school, ladies-in-waiting brought me lunches of royal cuisine. I was not allowed to do sports; the school principal ran in my place.' Life would change dramatically for the infant prince. '[After 1945] General MacArthur let the Japanese keep their monarchy, but president Rhee Syngman did not want that in Korea. He nationalised all royal assets. Overnight, we became poor. We did not know how to live as citizens, how to make money. The family considered suicide.' Yi Seok later tried to enlist Yi Gu - whose family, as 'official' heirs, were invited back to live in a small palace compound in Seoul in 1963 - in a demonstration to keep the royal buildings. Yi Gu declined. Yi Seok hoped to become a diplomat, but in the 1960s, penniless, was forced to take work as a crooner on US military bases in Korea, where he became known as 'The Singing Prince'. 'One time, after a concert for the air force, my bandmaster announced my royal blood,' he said. 'The audience stood and saluted.' He served as a military entertainer for two years with Korea's Tiger Division in the Vietnam war, and later enjoyed moderate success with a pop song called Pigeon's House. But he went through three divorces, fell on hard times, and was reduced to sleeping in Seoul public bathhouses. He was discovered in one such house by a local reporter last year, and his story made headline news. Today, he has found a measure of peace. He lives in a traditional compound granted by the southern city of Jeonju, the ancestral home of the Yi family. He is scathing about Korean disinterest in their royal past. 'I watch the TV historical dramas about my family. They should be based on history, but this stuff is pure melodrama. I can't stand it,' he said. 'I would like to write to the 41 countries with monarchies and tell them there are still royals in Korea; I would like to see a return to a symbolic monarchy,' he said. He pauses, then, shaking his head sadly, walks over to the lawn in front of the throne room to pick up and dispose of a discarded coke can. 'But it's just an idea. My favourite song is Impossible Dream.' A restoration of the monarchy is not on the agenda of South Korea's liberal administration; it may even be politically incorrect. But some empathise. 'We can't criticise [the royal descendants],' said Yi Jung-jae, secretary-general of the Yi Family Association. 'They are the victims of history.'