Pyongyang, Propaganda, and Postage Stamps
Image Source: Colnect.com, North Korean Stamp Catalog, https://colnect.com/en/stamps/stamp/610043-Spy_ship_Pueblo_captured_by_North_Korea_in_1968_arrested…-Month_of_the_fight_against_the_United_States
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)has used postage stamps as billboards to trumpet its socialist ideals, governmental successes, heroes, political leaders, future plans and, most especially, its victimization by outside forces. The DPRK’s government understands the power of its stamp program to sway the opinions of its own people and those of the outside world.
Historical Contexts of DPRK’s Postage Stamps
On December 27, 1972, a new constitution was introduced to reflect considerable changes in DPRK society, state, and policy—including attention to the completeness of transition to socialism and whether proletarian dictatorship and class struggle were still necessary. Compared to most “Marxist” states, DPRK’s new constitution is unique in its integration of nationalism, socialism and “Juche”—the force behind the drive to economic independence. The 1948 constitution was influenced by the 1936 Soviet constitution, whereas the 1972 document had a number of purely DPRK concepts. The Cabinet drafted “the State plan for the development of the national economy,” covering all fields of socio-economic concern. Its specific mention of communication and education is noticeably apparent in the DPRK’s postage stamp program.
Early DPRK stamps are generally scarce, as international mail rarely left the nation. Little useful, philatelic information has ever been available from DPRK, so there is considerable variation in the listings of various stamp catalogues. However, the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalog (Amos Advantage Publications) is the most widely used in the U.S.
Various controls have been imposed by U.S. law, further constricting available items of DPRK origin as a result of the 1950-53 war. Such laws prohibit sales of stamps produced after the embargo was initiated and the buying and selling of stamp collections (although the prohibition was not strictly enforced).
DPRK stamps were poorly made in the first decade of their production. Early issues were produced without the usual adhesive. Most exist in a variety of color shades. Those issued under Soviet occupation (1946-48) are scarce, commanding high prices when becoming available to collectors.
Throughout 1955 to 1957, the DPRK seemingly created “reprints” for sale. Actually, they were imitations of most 1956-56 issues. Nevertheless, in many cases they may have served real postal needs. However, most were created for and sold to overseas collectors in exchange for hard currency. They were more finely printed than the originals, and were normally printed on higher quality, white wove paper. They often differ from the originals in size and design. Specific, distinguishing characteristics are difficult to detect, even by philatelic experts.
By reviewing DPRK stamps via topic rather than chronological sequence, we gain a better view of the inner workings of DPRK propaganda as both an internal and external tool. Important political topics covered in the stamps include the military, devoted peasants, the unification of the peninsula, and the important 6 Year Program.
Challenging the Facts of Internal Propaganda
A press release from the Korean Stamp Corporation for “education in class consciousness” issued on June 5, 2001 (#4145), is particularly notable for its poor English and revelatory in its internal indoctrination.
The release claims that 35,383 noncombatants (19,149 men and 16,234 women) were massacred by U.S. troops in the Sinchon county of North Korea between October 17th and December 7th, 1950. It further exclaims that U.S. soldiers: “herded civilians into air raid shelters, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire while throwing hand grenades at them, throwing the bodies into reservoir and drowned them.…besides, they ran over innocent people to death by tank, cutting of abdomen of pregnant women, nailed and sawed their heads to death [sic].” 
The stamp design shows Kim Il Sung exhorting Koreans and defying Americans with a raised, clenched fist against a backdrop of Korean civilians fleeing and resisting “genocide.” The stamp teaches the masses to hate and fear the “U.S. imperialist aggressors who are wolves in human form.” In addition to the atrocities specified, it also claims: “the indiscriminate use of germ and chemical warfare by U.S. forces, scientific experimentation on Korean human guinea pigs and mass executions of North Korean prisoners of war by flame throwers.”
Stamps with false or offensive information violate the Universal Postal Union Code. Yet, a 1973 conference recognized the problem of imposing sanctions due to lack of unanimous agreement on what constitutes offensive material. Even so, the DPRK clearly and blatantly violated these rules before and after joining the UPU in 1974.
There were also stamp issues containing spiteful images against other nations, including anti-Japanese and anti-Republic of Korea stamps. As a matter of course, all these stamp issues supported the North’s Songun, or military first policy.
Issues on International Cooperation
By far the most expansive stamp issues are in honor of cooperative efforts with the DPRK international allies. In line with serving the purposes of internal propaganda, these relationship-oriented issues are likely to be the most promoted. For example, DPRK assisted Zimbabwe in 1984, having created a memorial in the newly formed African country for “Heroes’ Day.” A similar memorial featured on DPRK stamps was subsequently designed by a team of North Korean artists and sculptors (Zimbabwe #477-480).
The Cuba/DPRK issue of 2010, portraying Fidel Castro in a display of unity with the late Kim Il Sung, is one of several “joint” issues produced by Cuba (#5147). In light of reports that the nations were exchanging sugar, repair weaponry and more, the issue further enhances the perception of cooperation between the two hard-liner Communist states.
There are some issues with common themes between the DPRK and Soviet bloc nations. In 1980 both regimes issued stamps alluding to musical composer, Robert Stolz (#2011-12). This was probably coincidental as both regimes saw a subset of collectors interested in music and Stolz’s generally obscure musical piece, “The Philatelists Waltz.” Coincidental or not, overlapping themes appearing in stamps of the DPRK and other regimes are perhaps subtly indicative of strategic ties.
Juche is Juche-But Money is Money
North Korean stamp issues created for money-making purposes, as opposed to genuine postal needs, abound. Issues depicting the British royal family, ( #2104-8, #2116-20, #2175-80, #2205-09, #2718), are some examples among others. It was probably impossible to buy these stamps in North Korea. They went straight from the printers in Paris and other cities to stamp shops of the Western world.
Other issues that serve propaganda and generate income include those which tie into the “Sayings of Mao” (#5131-33, #5137-38). Clearly these issues mirrored the DPRK’s alliance with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and even added to the PRC’s very popular and valuable 1960-70 “Cultural Revolution” issues at the Beijing 2012 International Stamp and Coin Exhibition. It is apparent that the DPRK wants to “cash-in” on the PRC’s desirable issues (many bring record prices at auctions worldwide) by implying that its stamps will also garner high collector demand.
Issued in April 2013, a souvenir sheet of stamps, which are larger than standard stamps and therefore popular collectors’ items, clearly exemplifies an instance of plagiarism for the sake of monetary gain; the DPRK’s “Year of the Monkey” (1986) souvenir issue (Scott #5170) is discernibly a copy of that issued by the PRC (Scott #1586). The DPRK issue is valued at $.45 (U.S.), while the PRC issue is listed at $1750 unused and $550 used. Whatever the reason for the PRC’s high valuation, it is clear that the DPRK wants to have its stamps likewise valued.
After the Death of Kim Il Sung (1994)
April 15th “Birthday” issues were produced even after the death of Kim Il Sung (#3442-44, #3534-35, 3620-24, #3643-48, 3658-62, #3700-08, #3846-47). After a 1995-1999 break, the same “Birthday” issues reemerged (#4366-67).
A most unusual issue was #4281-85, commemorating the automobiles used by Kim, which could be interpreted as both a reverence for Kim’s worldly possessions and an attempt to create a popular topical automobile series for stamp collectors.
The Most Bizarre and Macabre DPRK Issues
As one might expect, the DPRK has introduced a few exceptionally unique stamp issues. The list below is just a small selection of those:
“Conquerors of the Universe” Series (#1949-53): North Korean spacemen landing on a distant planet, greeted by monster/dinosaur/dragon-like aliens that they subsequently conquer.
“Ahn Jung-Geun”( #4396): Issued September 21, 2004, the issue honors Ahn Jung-Geun, who assassinated Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi after the signing of the Eulsa Treaty which annexed Korea to Japan. A hero in both the ROK and DPRK, Ahn was posthumously awarded the ROK Order of Merit medal for National Foundation in 1962, among other South Korean honors. He was also honored by the PRC in 2006.
“The Weapon” (#4397): Issued September 21, 2004, this issue takes weaponry to a haunting level by honoring the weapon used. Virtually all countries issue stamps commemorating fallen leaders of world renown, but only the DPRK, Cuba and Iran publicize and venerate assassins and their weapons on their stamps.
Discussion on how the above issues may be categorized is possible. “Anh Jung Geun” and “The Weapon” might be categorized as internal propaganda or anti-Japanese. “Unification of the peninsula” is yet another viable theme. It is also possible that categorizations are not mutually exclusive, and these issues could qualify as all three.
USS Pueblo: Error in Design
An “error in design” is an error in the original design conception, made before it reaches the printer. Not caused by faults in printing, it typically affects all stamps of an issue. The most egregious error in design from North Korea occurred in a particularly propagandistic, 2008 issue.
The USS PUEBLO was captured on January 23, 1968. The crew was released on December 23, 1968. In a stamp issue portraying the event, The DPRK clearly depicts the vessel as being an “Armed Spy” ship, the ship crew being paraded as prisoners in the upper left-hand corner (Scott #4759).
The error committed was misidentifying the ship on the stamps GER2 rather than identifying it correctly as AGER 2. Also worth noting, the dates 6/25-7/27 which appear on the cachet envelope refer to the dates of the U.S. involvement in the Korean War, as if to say the “War” is still going on.
The Scott catalog notes, in eight separate areas, several non-issued stamps with very high catalog values (not always the “true” market value, but an overall pricing guide). These issues are noted coming after:
# 725 (1966 Issue)
# 804 (1967 Issue)
# 906 (1969 Issue)
# 975 (1971 Issue)
# 1022 (1971 Issue)
# 1045 (1972 Issue)
# 1095 (1972 Issue)
# 1781 (1979 Issue)
No pictures are illustrated and no reasons are given to explain why these stamps were either non-issued or withdrawn—politically, economically or otherwise.
DPRK’S Forging of U.S. Postage Stamps
Forgeries and counterfeits have been with philately virtually from the beginning of stamp production. A few articles have appeared in collector publications over the years trying to figure out what North Korea hoped to accomplish by what can only be described as its own poor attempt of “covert philatelic propaganda.” The purpose may not have been entirely propagandistic, but simply an attempt to disrupt opponents’ mail systems.
In his article, “U.S. Stamp Forgeries By North Korea,” Ken Lawrence casts doubt on the effectiveness of DPRK forgeries, claiming “…I also think that the use of counterfeit postage and publications was a political act designed to impress (rather than persuade) the recipients.”
Howard K. Petschel gives a more precise and detailed explanation of the DPRK’s forging of U.S. stamps. According to Petschel, the Koreans had been counterfeiting since the 1950s, both currency and stamps. In recent years, what he calls “super bills” began to show up, produced on a Swiss-made intaglio printing press “installed in a high-security building called ‘Printing House 62’ in Psyongsong, a city outside Pyongyang.”
Petschel says this was confirmed when “in 1977, Hwang Jang Yop, a former secretary in the North Korean Workers Party and Kim Duk Hong, the head of the government trading company, defected.” The defector Yop provided “information that on Changgwang Street in Pyongyang there is a barricaded compound that is the home of ‘Office 39.’” According to Yop, “this facility, besides legitimate enterprises, is to obtain hard revenue for the regime by overseeing counterfeit drug manufacturing, sales of missile technology, counterfeit cigarettes, and counterfeit currency.” They also produced stamps.
Later, the U.S. Congressional Research Service identified the DPRK as the source of at least $45 million in counterfeit currency, stating that the operation is “directly tied to criminal organizations in Japan, Taiwan, China and Vietnam,” indicating that the purpose is not only to generate propaganda but also for obtaining hard currency.
According to Petschel, by 1965 “a peculiar U.S. postal counterfeit revealed itself” in the guise of an ordinary U.S. stamp. “The 1/2-cent Benjamin Franklin stamp of the Liberty Series, issued October 20, 1955, was found in counterfeit form, with counterfeit cancelations, on propaganda mail from NK.”
The study of DPRK postage stamps remains important because governments can re-write history books, but they cannot un-issue stamps. The postage stamp stands forever as witness to governments’ accomplishments and failures. The DPRK understands this. Just as it glorifies its art, sculpture, and posters in its museums, the DPRK is putting the same emphasis on its postage stamps, as evidenced by opening and commemorating a postal issue in the Korean Stamp Museum (#5094-5109).
Comprehending North Korea requires a willingness to step outside the traditional norms of understanding strategies, such as IMINT (Imagery Intelligence), SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) and the ever-problematic HUMINT (Human Intelligence). Perhaps a new term should be added: STAMPINT (“Stamp” Intelligence) or PHILATELINT (Philatelic Intelligence).
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.
Mark Sommer is an adjunct professor in Government, Diplomacy, International Affairs, Global Security & Sociopolitical Issues. He holds a BA in Political Science from Yeshiva University and an MA in International Relations from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a specialty in Far Eastern Studies. His philatelic memberships include The American Philatelic Society (www.stamps.org), Military Postal History Society (military.PHS.org), Forces Postal History Society (www.forcepostalhistorysociety.org.uk), and the non-philatelic Psywar Society (www.psywarsoc.org).
For those who want to investigate the topic of propaganda in North Korea Stamps further, here are the numbers of stamps referred to by category.
1) Home Consumption/Internal Propaganda
A. Honoring Peasants: #7-10, #29, #31, #110, #206, #546, #936, #939.
B. “Free” Elections #117, #1099-1100.
C. Universal Postal Union #1236-38.
D. Unification of Peninsula #33, #175, #319, #526, #684, #804, #913-15, #971, #1116-1120 (Also can be under Anti-US category), #1577, #2932-2933, #3256-61, #3430, #3542, #3627-28, #3901, #4087, #4308, #4441-42, #4445, #4704 #4924, #5115.
E. 6th Year Programs#997-1007, #1022, #1062-88.
2) “Anti” Issues
A. Anti-Japanese #6, #55-56, #69, #95-6, #106, #242, #249, #398-404, #480-84,# 601, #772-774, #891-94, #1115 #2089, #4469, #4820, #4887.
B. Anti-US #53, #68, #77, #172-75, #219, #464, #469, #719, #909, #943-44, #1018-21, #1089-95, #1342, #4446, #4759.
C. Anti-ROK #458, #580-81, #982-84,
3) Cooperation With Allies
#36-41, (#36a-41a Reprints), #54, #124, #134-37, #153, #160-61, #220, #224, #243, , #282, #329-30, #354-55, #394, #429, #558, #583, #665, #703-05, #986-91 (Also can be included as an Anti-US issue), #1243-48, #1271, #1304-06, #1613-16, #2000, #2129, #2130, #2410-12, #2433-35, #2492-94, #2548, #2587-90, #2610, #2796, #2945-49, #3404-05, #3445-50, #3480-82, #3521, #3532-33, #3561-63, #3575, #3639-40, #3713-16, #3744-47, #3792, #3796-3800, #3940-45, #4086, #4088, #4089-4090, #4337-42, #4373-75, #4388-90, #4434-35, #4711, #4869-70, #4937, #4950-56, #4977-78, #5024-26, #5030, #5052-56, 5180, 5274. See also Thailand #2854 on their relations with North Korea.
 The first article to appear on this subject was entitled, “U.S. Stamps Forged to Distinguish Propaganda,” Society of Philatelic American Journal (disbanded in 1983), February 1966, 28-30.
 Dec. 5, 1988 issue of Linn’s Stamp News (www.linns.com). On page 1, entitled: “U.S. Stamp Forgeries By North Korea.” The author did a follow-up in Nov. 1992 issue of AMERICAN PHILATELIST (www.stamps.org), but provided only a bit more information on these forgeries.
 Other unofficial terms within HUMINT include EXINT (Exile Intelligence), HUNCHINT (“Hunch” Intelligence), and RUMINT (Rumor Intelligence).
 Italicized in Scott Stamp Catalog to show much market volatility.
 The brochure finally states that those who would like to purchase North Korean stamps should contact the Korean Stamp Corporation in North Korea by phone at 850-2-381-4626 or by email at email@example.com. And yes, the North Koreans accept payment by check, cash or credit card.
 The UPU had to suffice with the issuing of a strong recommendation for tolerance and goodwill. “Postal administrations should choose, when issuing postage stamps, subjects likely to contribute to national understanding among peoples, to the dissemination of culture and generally speaking to strengthening the bonds of international friendship.” (Proposal 2500.4, committee 5, 7th meeting, Congress Doc. 84/Add 2, 19th plenary meeting).
 Dynasty Auctions Company, LTD,the 2012 Fall Sale (27-28 October 2012, Hong Kong). Daniel F. Kelleher Auctions, LLC (Danbury CT). Harmer’s Auctions, Switzerland Sale 20, April 23, 2016 (Lugano, Switzerland).