In my childhood I was a passionate stamp collector and still today I will often pick up some stamps as souvenirs when I travel, particularly when I visit what might be termed more obscure countries in the stamp collecting world.
North Korea offers little choice in terms of souvenirs but stamps are an option and they are readily available almost everywhere tourists visit though some places offer a wider selection than others. In 2018 we visited two specialist shops, one outside the Koryo Museum near Kaesong (also visited in 2014) and the Korean Stamp Exhibition Hall in Pyongyang, the subject of this review.
My visit to the Stamp Exhibition Hall started with lunch in the restaurant downstairs.
Here we enjoyed a delicious Korean bibimbap while watching what appeared to be a Korean War documentary with actual war footage – alas it was not in English but still part of the ongoing reminder to everyone that the Korean War continues to this day.
After lunch we moved upstairs to the Stamp Exhibition Hall which was beautifully laid out and obviously very new. I understand it opened in 2012. Stamps and other philatelic items were well laid out in a number of display formats and descriptions were in both Korean and English.
As I recall this was the only place we visited in North Korea where descriptions were in English.
What I found especially interesting was that the pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, typically found in public areas like this, were, here, given a philatelic makeover with two actual stamps being enlarged and displayed.
North Korean stamps cover a range of topics. Prior to the mid 1970s they primarily dealt with subjects specifically related to North Korea, its foundation, Kim Il-sung and other patriotic themes. Realising then that stamps can be a useful source of foreign currency, from overseas collectors, the range of topics covered was greatly increased and stamps are now also produced with a special focus on European royalty, sports, wildlife and other thematic subjects of particular interest to international thematic collectors. In 1982, for example, stamp sets were issued to commemorate the ‘21st Birthday of the Princess of Wales’, the ‘Birth of Prince William of Wales’ (a two and three dimensional set!) and the World Cup Football Championships, Spain, Results’.
It is likely that many, if not most, special issue stamps (now numerous sets per year with 18 to June 2019) are not circulated at all within North Korea or intended for actual postal use. Many North Korean stamps, including the three sets specifically mentioned above, are relegated to a special section of Stanley Gibbon’s catalogues with the advice that the ‘….. stamps have either been issued in excess of postal needs, or have not been available to the public in reasonable quantities at face value’. Essentially the renowned British philatelic dealer and publisher doubt their legitimacy as stamps. Obviously many of the stamps in my photos are special commemorative editions which, per Gibbon’s, is fine if the base stamps included have been sufficiently circulated at face value.
Of course, almost all countries issue stamps specifically for collectors so North Korea is far from unique in this regard.
Stamps available locally, for postal use, tend to be patriotic in content and often depict miniature forms of propaganda posters and murals, rather than images of the leaders. I would not want to be the postal official who cancelled a stamp featuring one of the Leaders by slapping a black franking mark across their face! (Any form of defacing the image of a Leader in North Korea is a serious criminal offence).
I doubt if any of the leaders stamps depicted below have been in general circulation within North Korea and I have seen it said that if anyone used them to post something from North Korea it would not leave the country. I imagine overseas postal officials would not be sufficiently trained to identify these depictions of the Leaders and treat them in an appropriately respectful manner!
(Addendum – A member of the group I travelled to North Korea with in 2014 has just let me know that she (contrary to advice she received) used stamps depicting the Leaders to send postcards overseas in that year and they were delivered).
The definitive stamps, as pictured alongside, were those sold to tourists wishing to send postcards overseas (in 2018). If you tell the shop assistant that you plan to use the stamps to send postcards they will give you the correct stamps.
As a side note, should you visit and send postcards overseas ensure you do not say anything disrespectful about the Leaders or the country and do not call it North Korea – you must refer to it as the DPRK or Korea. Assume your card will be read and if deemed inappropriate, binned.
Now the unexpected!
Of particular interest to my reader may be that in June 2019 North Korea issued three stamps commemorating the first anniversary of the 2018 summit in Singapore between Marshal Kim Jong-un and President Trump. Pictures below were sourced from https://koreastampsociety.org/
Also due for public release in the next couple of days are two stamps, one commemorating Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first visit to Pyongyang in late June 2019 and one of President Trump with Marshal Kim Jong-un in North Korea, at Panmunjom, on 30 June 2019. Pictures courtesy of NK-News.
I doubt if stamps will be issued to mark the Hanoi summit meeting.
While President Trump is the first (only) US president to be depicted on North Korean stamps other world leaders have often appeared on the country’s stamps.
Having had a look at the exhibition I moved on to the shop area where many of the stamps on display, plus others, were available for sale. I only purchased a few individuals stamps here, including some of those depicted above, as I had already purchased quite a few at other locations and on my previous visit in 2014.
My next North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang review– HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Pyongyang reviews – HERE