A Short History of Korean Stamps

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(From KP May 2012 Vol. 54, No. 2, pages 13-15) Nowadays, many veteran philatelists are quite pessimistic about the future of their hobby. Fifty years ago, every schoolboy was collecting stamps, but now the tradition is obviously dying out. Perhaps, several decades ago, before TV, the internet, iPhones, and video games, stamps were among the few windows onto the Great World. Now competition is getting too tough for the small pieces of paper. Nevertheless, philately is far from dead. 

Andrei Lankov

Stamps were first introduced in Great Britain in 1840. The first Korean postal stamp was issued 44 years later, in 1884. We know precisely when it happened; on the first day of the tenth month (November 18, according to the Western solar calendar).

In early 1884, young reform-minded officials persuaded the Korean court to establish a modern-type postal service. It was believed to be an essential tool for the country’s transformation from a medieval kingdom to a modern state. The King appointed a prominent reformer, Hong Yong-sik, to manage the new institution.

The modern postal service required stamps. Therefore, the reformers ordered them in Japan. The first set of stamps consisted of five different values–5, 10, 25, 50, and 100 mun. Like most stamps of the era, their appearance was not especially sophisticated–just small pieces of papers. The cheaper stamps had only one color; the 5-mun stamp was red, while the most expensive 100-mun stamp was printed in two colors. All stamps had inscriptions in Chinese characters, which could be read by any educated Koreans, Chinese, or Japanese, while the more expensive ones were also marked in English, “Corean Post” (note the use of “C”, not “K” to render the name of the country).

The total number of stamps was impressive–2.8 million stamps of all five types were ordered from the Japanese printers. This included a half-million 5-mun and one million 10-mun stamps.

Initially it was expected that the cheaper 5- and 10-mun stamps would be used for domestic correspondence, while the more expensive stamps would be attached to international mail. This is why they had English captions as well. However, only the 5- and 10-mun stamps actually went into circulation. They were attached to mail sent from Seoul to nearby Incheon. The more expensive 25-, 50- and 100-mun stamps were never used. By the time of their delivery, the postal office had been reduced to rubble!

Why did it happen? Actually, the reformers did not only want to establish a modern postal service. They had much more serious (and sinister) plans in mind. To commemorate the opening of the postal office, they arranged a banquet to which all the prominent conservative leaders were invited. In the midst of the feast, the reformers attacked the conservatives with swords and knives. The banquet was a deliberate trap. The reformers wanted to wipe out all of their opponents in one powerful stroke.

However, things did not work out as expected. Whatever the motivations of the reformers (many of whom are still revered in Korea nowadays), the common people saw the “post office massacre” as a bloody coup staged against a legitimate government. The obvious Japanese support did little but harm to the reformers’ reputation; to the common people, they appeared not only as enemies of the peace and order, but also as agents of a foreign and, likely, hostile country. The reformist government managed to last for just few days, to be overthrown by a Chinese intervention and popular riots. Among the victims of the backlash was Hong Yong-sik, the founding father of Korean Post.

After the downfall of the reformers, the postal service ceased to function. Out of an initial printing of 1.5 million, only seventeen used 5- and 10-mun stamps have survived to this day. Now each surviving stamp costs 9 million won (some $8,000 US). The authenticity of these stamps is hotly debated among serious collectors. Sadly, no stamps on cover have ever been found. If an authentic envelope with such a stamp were ever discovered, it would cost many times more! This is one of those rare cases where the used stamp is worth far more than the mint stamp. Mint copies of Korea’s first two stamps can be bought for around 50,000 won in Seoul, or around $40 abroad. Equally surprisingly, the higher value 25-, 50-, and 100-mun denominations, which were never used, can be bought for around 10,000 won.

For the next 11 years, Japan ran its own postal service in Korea. Finally, in 1895, when a new reformist government was established in Seoul, the postal service was restored and re-vived. The reborn Post issued new stamps, this time valued in p’un (a small copper coin essentially the same as mun).

Over the 1884-1905 period, the Korean postal service issued 55 different stamps, in-cluding the first commemorative stamp, issued in 1902 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of King Kojong’s reign.

In 1905, the Japanese government forced Korea to give up the right to manage its own postal service. From then on, it was subordinated to the Japanese postal system. To commemorate the merger of the two postal services, a special Japanese stamp was issued. However, for a while, Korean stamps could still be used within Korea. Only by late 1909 did they completely go out of circulation.

The restoration of the country’s independence in 1945 also meant the restoration of its postal service. But how could you have a functioning postal service without stamps? For a brief while, Japanese stamps were still used, to the great displeasure of the customers. In February, 1946, six old Japanese stamps had Korean script printed over them. Interestingly, these overprints contained an old Korean name for Korea–Choson (this name still remains in use in the North, while in the South it has been replaced by Hanguk).

The first South Korean stamps were printed by the USMG and appeared on 1 May 1946. Appropriately, these first stamps of a newly independent country formed a set of six, entitled ‘The Liberation of Korea.” Four of the six depicted the same scene: a man, woman, and child, against a background of a Korean national flag. It is worthy of note that these stamps, commemorating the end of the Japanese rule, were actually printed in Japan. Korea still lacked the necessary technology. Neverthefrom August 1946, all Korean stamps have been printed domestically.

The stamps of 1948 commemorated a number of important events in South Korean history–the introduction of a new Constitution, parliamentary elections, and the inauguration of President Syngman Rhee (14 years later, in 1962, another stamp would commemorate his downfall during the students’ revolution of 1961). One of the 1948 stamps was issued to mark the 1948 Olympic Games, the first Olympics in which Korean athletes competed under their own national flag. Technically, all of these stamps were still issued by the US military government. These stamps are simple, but beautiful and rare. Only 50-100,000 were printed of each.

During the Korean War, the postal service issued 44 stamps to honor the 21 countries that sent their forces to fight in the War. Each country was honored by two stamps: one with a green background and the other with a blue background. However, 21 by two is 42, not 44. The reason for the discrepancy was that there were two versions of stamps commemorating Italy. Initially, a designer had used an outdated atlas and reproduced an old Italian flag with a royal crown. It was discovered when the stamps went into circulation, so two new stamps had to be issued, this time the designer (a different one) got the flag right!

From 15 August 1948 to 31 December 2009, Korean Post issued 2,716 different stamps (an additional 37 stamps and imprints were issued during the US military rule of 1945-1948). However, in recent years stamps have gradually lost their popularity. The explosive growth of e-mail makes good letter writing in-creasingly outdated.

Signs of crisis are everywhere. Since the 1990s, the sale of stamps in Korea has dramatically declined. It is remarkable that stamp collecting, once a favorite pastime of boys, has become a reserve of old gentlemen. It helps to drive prices for collectors’ items high, but for the future of philately (as this hobby is officially known), it does not bode well.

Korean Post has tried to find imaginative ways to save stamps from gradual extinction. One of the solutions is personalized stamps ordered by individuals; modern printing technology makes this quite easy. Such stamps are popular in many developed countries; after all, they make wonderful souvenirs. In Korea, customers are not given complete freedom to make their own stamps. Any prospective design has to receive official approval from the postal service.

However, the gradual demise of the stamp collecting seems to be unstoppable. Well, all traditions and institutions end one day, and stamps are no exception; they are, after all, merely a device once invented to make communications more convenient. Now, there are better ways to communicate than through snail mail!

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