Lee Hoe-yeong was born in Hanseong, present day Seoul, during the end of the Joseon Era on March 17th, 1867 in one of the most prominent families of the Joseon Dynasty, the GyeongJu Lee Clan. Lee’s family had produced appointed governmental officials, including 11 ministers, for every generation of the family and Lee was the tenth descendant of Lee Hang-bok, a renowned scholar of the Joseon Dynasty. In his early 20s, Lee began work on enlightening the Korean people through the Dong Nip Hyeop Hoe or Independence Club. With the Protectorate Treaty in 1905 which forcibly took Korea’s sovereignty, Lee used his position with Emperor Gojong to convince him of the need for external help. Gojong agreed with this notion and sent an envoy of three men secretly to the Hague Convention of 1907 in the Netherlands in order to seek international help. However, Japan discovered this and through lobbying, successfully barred the envoy from attending the convention as well as arrested all three men and forced Gojong to abdicate his throne and disband the Korean national army.
In 1910, when Korea was officially annexed by Japan, all 6 brothers of the Lee family sold their properties and the family, around 40 members, left for Manchuria with the $55 million they had gotten from it. Before leaving as well, Lee freed the families’ slaves, however the slaves decided to join the family’s ambition and left for Manchuria in tandem. There, they settled in Seogangdo, establishing the Shinheung Military Academy with their funds. When crossing the Yalu River into Manchuria out of the peninsula, Lee paid the man who helped them a generous sum, only asking that he continue helping Korean people cross who may not be bringing money. Shinheung Military Academy, which produced over 3,500 graduates before its closing in 1920, also did not charge its students and was thus completely free. The academy not only trained fighters but gave them a sufficient education too in subjects like foreign language, math, and history. This became a base for the Korean independence movement.
Lee invested all of his family’s fortune into the academy which went on to produce alumni such as General Cheong-cheon and most of the armed forces in the Battle of Qingshanli and the Bongoh Town Battle were also graduates from this academy, ultimately contributing to the Japanese defeat in Manchuria and China in 1945. Such devotion to the independence movement also came at great sacrifice. Out of the 40 family members who set out from Korea at the beginning, only 20 returned in the end. One of the younger brothers, Lee Kyu-chang wrote in his autobiography that it was a lucky if they were able to get 3 meals in a week in a description of how poor their circumstances were at the time. One brother died of disease while another died from starvation. Lee’s wife also had to travel back to Korea in order to raise more money for the cause as their initial $55 million became depleted.
For 7 years, Lee’s wife remained in Korea in order to raise the money needed, however in 1932, she received word of her husband’s death. Lee had moved to Shanghai in order to plot a rebellion, and influenced by Yun Bong-gil’s actions at Hongkou Park in China of the same year, recognized a need for direct action. Upon hearing of Japanese military movements in Manchuria, Lee travelled back to Manchuria, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Japanese upon arrival. He was held and tortured for 4 days to extract names and information on coconspirators but Lee refused to talk. He was ultimately executed on November 17th, 1932 at the same prison Ahn Jeung-gun had been executed and his remains were cremated the same day. In the press, Japan stated he had committed suicide in order to prevent retaliation from the public. Out of all the 6 brothers, only one, Lee Si-yeong, was able to witness Korea’s liberation from Japan and went on to become the first vice-president of South Korea.
Lee’s remains were buried in the Seoul National Cemetery after liberation and he was posthumously awarded the Order of Merit for National Foundation in 1962.