About Virtual Korea


The last 120 years or so have seen tons of change for Korea, but what does the future hold? Tom shares what one heir is doing with their legacy.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



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Episode transcript:

On the 5th of September 1905, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, US President Teddy Roosevelt successfully mediated peace between Russia and Japan. The two Empires had been waging war in Manchuria since February 1904, focusing on control of the warm-water port of Port Arthur.

As one of the many provisions of the “Treaty of Portsmouth” Russia recognized Korea as part of Japan’s sphere of influence.

This did not go down well with the Joseon dynasty that had ruled Korea since the 1300s. Korea’s Joseon empire had slowly embraced a pro-Russian stance in opposition to Japan and to supplement support from China. Emperor Gojong had even spent a year in the Russian Legation in 1896 after the murder of his wife by a pro-Japanese faction.

The Emperor did not give up.

In 1907, Roosevelt prevailed on the nations of the world to hold a second “Hague Convention” in the Netherlands. The first had resulted in new rules of war and avenues to avoid it. This second conference included representatives from nations from every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Emperor Gojong saw this as the last chance for Korea. He prepared three emissaries to secretly travel to the convention without Japan’s knowledge. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II (yeah the one that would end his reign with the Bolshevik revolution) helped, by smuggling the emissaries into the conference hall without Japan’s knowledge.

But Japan found out. They objected to the emissaries entry on the basis that the treaty of 1905 gave them the right to represent Korea’s interests. The emissaries were turned away and did not get to plead their case in front of the countries of the world.

As a result, Japan deposed Emperor Gojong and installed his son, Sunjong as emperor and forced him to sign a succession of treaties that eventually resulted in the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910.

If Emperor Gojong had been able to protect his secrecy a little more, who’s to say if his emissaries were succeeded. If only he had the equivalent of a good VPN. Something to keep spies from seeing his traffic.

No. This isn’t. Ham-handed transition to a sponsor. But the descendant of Emperor Gojong, and heir to the throne, did create Private Internet Access, one of the most well-reviewed VPN’s on the planet. And then recreated the Joseon empire. With blockchain.

Let’s help you Know a Little More about Virtual Korea.

Andrew Lee was a geek. The Indianapolis native had studied at Purdue and the University of Buffalo, but like many tech entrepreneurs, focused on his own passions rather than getting a degree.

As a fan of IRC – Internet Relay Chat, Lee wanted a way to secure his conversations. IRC revealed IP addresses, which was something nefarious folks could use to track you. Especially if you traded in torrents. To protect yourself you needed a VPN, but there were a lot of untrustworthy VPNs out there. So, in 2009, Lee started London Trust Media with the aim of taking VPN mainstream. And in 2010 London Trust Media founded Private Internet Access, an open source VPN provider. PIA focused on privacy with a no logs policy, a kill switch and decent speeds. Deloitte audited PIA in 2022 and found its server configurations were not designed to identify users.

Lee’s activities after the founding of PIA mostly read like a typical tech entrepreneur. He got into Bitcoin in the early days. He started a bitcoin price tracker in 2013 called Mt. Gox Live, which was eventually sold to the ill-fated Mt. Gox cryptocurrency exchange. He acquired Freenode IRC in 2017.

And in 2018 he gained another title. Crown Prince.

Let’s go back to 1910. Emperor Sunjong has once again acquiesced to Japanese demands, and this time sealed the fate of Korea’s Joseon empire. Sunjong signed the Japan-Korea annexation treaty, making Korea part of Japan.

In thanks, Japan demoted Sunjong to King and he died in 1926. His powerless title passed to his brother Yi Un. Another brother Yi Kang had seniority, but had married a commoner and was passed over.

Eventually the allies defeated Japan in World War II. The liberation of Korea in 1945 brought about a republic in the south. The monarchy was not restored. While North Korea uses the word Joseon in its official name, it also does not recognise a royal family.

However the people still lived. There are many descendants of the royal court and more than one of them claim to be the legitimate heir to the throne. A few of them even lobby for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, similar to what exists in the United Kingdom. One of the claimants to the throne is Yi Kang’s son Yi Seok.

Yi Seok has a colorful history himself. He was born in Sarong palace in 1941 in the waning days of Japan’s occupation of Korea. With the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1945, the imperial family was sent out of the palace. Yi Seok struggled but eventually found success as a singer. The “singing prince,” Yi Seok, had a hit album called Pigeon House in 1967. He fought for Korea in the Vietnam War. He immigrated to the US for a time and worked as a landscaper, then returned to Korea in the 1990s. He eventually began working for the city of Jeonju’s tourism department and as a professor of history at Jeonju University.

Here’s the connection to our main story. In 2006, Yi Seok founded the Imperial Culture Foundation of Korea in order to lobby for a constitutional monarchy. Since the death of his cousin Yi Ku in 2005, Yi Seok considers himself the head of the house of Yi and crown prince and heir to the Joseon throne.

A moment to be clear. No one agrees who the legitimate heir to the throne is. There is no imminent possibility of the throne being restored by the Republic of Korea. Yi Seok’s claim is disputed.

But the man knows how to steal a headline.

As Andrew Lee, founder of PIA VPN tells it, he was playing Super Smash Brothers when a distant relative named Won Joon Lee interrupted him with a visit. Won Joon Lee’s grandfather is Yi Seok. After a conversation and a look at some family photos, Andrew Lee was convinced to fly Yi Seok to LA and take him to some golf tournaments and celebrity galas. They bonded over their shared love of music. And in the end, Yi Seok proposed adopting Andrew Lee as his heir.

On October 6, 2018, at a ceremony in Beverly Hills, California, Yi Seok declared Andrew Lee the crown prince of Korea and heir to the throne.

In an interview with Korea IT Times, Andrew Lee explained “The Great King Sejong never wished for the Great Korean People to have restricted access to the Internet,” and announced plans to create an imperial fund to invest in small businesses in Korea and teach coding. “The family intends to educate the Great Korean People with web and software development,” Lee said.

And while the imperial family doesn’t have its great stores of wealth any longer, Andrew Lee has made his own.

He has those early Bitcoin investments and in 2019, Israeli-company Kape Technologies bought PIA for $95.5 million. Lee didn’t get all of that but he got a chunk. Enough that in 2020, he moved into a $12.6 million house in Thousand Oaks, California.

Andrew Lee has also continued Yi Seok’s tradition of music. In 2023, Lee appeared under the name KingLee, rapping on J-Money’s album, “Dun It All.”

And most importantly, King Andrew Lee has restored the Joseon dynasty. In March 2022, Lee founded Joseon 2.0, a cloud-based blockchain-operated successor of the Joseon dynasty. Its digital charter makes clear it has no territorial aims- so South Korea has nothing to worry about- but it does consider itself a virtual successor of the imperial kingdom founded in 1392. To bolster its legitimacy, Joseon 2.0’s charter claims that treaties signed with the original kingdom are in full force. That’s based on the fact that Emperor Gojong never agreed to be deposed and the treaties Gojong signed were perpetual. So if Andrew Lee is the heir to Gojong, and the Republic of Korea has no ties to the imperial family, then, King Andrew Lee asserts, his virtual kingdom is the legitimate successor of Gojong’s.

Joseon 2.0 has also established bilateral relations with Antigua and Barbuda. Joseon 2.0 says this makes it the first cybernation to be recognized by a UN member.

And of course there is a cryptocurrency called the Joseon Mun or JSM which has about $5 million of trading value at around a penny US per coin.

Many organizations have tried and fallen short to become a virtual nation. But none to my knowledge have claimed the centuries long tradition that Joseon 2.0 does. We’ll leave you to judge the legitimacy of the various claims to that tradition.

As for me, I hope you know a little more about Joseon 2.0.

저는 당신이 조선2.0에 대해 조금 더 알기를 바랍니다

Know A Little More is researched, written and hosted by me, Tom Merritt. Editing and production provided by Anthony Lemos and Dog and Pony Show Audio. The public key cryptography players were Sarah Lane as Alice, Shannon Morse as Eve and Andrew Heaton as Bob. It’s issued under a Creative Commons Share Attribution 4.0 International License.