Post WWII and the use of Japanese Showa stamps in North Korea

North Korea

Kiku Shimbun 169 (August 2016) featured an article about the use of Japanese Showa stamps in North Korea after late 1945. The article is reprinted here by permission. Parts of this article were from a translation of ‘The Specialised Catalogue of Showa Stamps’ with the translation being carried out by our member Nicholas Pertwee. The article starts with a history of the Soviet occupation. 

On the 8th August 1945, during the final days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war against Japan and launched a military invasion of Manchuria and Korea taking many Japanese army members as prisoners of war. By then Japan had been depleted by the long drawn out war against Britain, the United States and their Allies – with the Japanese forces being in no position to stave off the invading Soviet army. The United States dropping of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th August and 9th August respectively, which led to the Japanese government searching for ways to end the war. On the 15th August 1945 Japan unconditionally surrendered.

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The Japanese surrender and the Soviet landings on the Korean peninsula totally altered the history of modern Korea. At the Cairo Conference held in December 1943 the Allies had agreed to strip Japan of all of the territories it had acquired since the commencement of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. During the Cairo Conference the United States, Britain and China had decided that Korea would be allowed to become a free and independent nation following an Allied victory. The Soviet Union also agreed to the same principle in its declaration of war against Japan.

In that the leaders of the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Soviet Union, Marshal Josef V. Stalin, had agreed to establish an international trusteeship for Korea at the Yalta Conference held in February 1945, no decisions had been made on the exact formula for governing the nation of Korea in the aftermath of the Allied victory. The invasion of Korea by the Soviet Army, however, compelled the United States government to hastily improvise a formula for Korea. Unless some agreement could be reached the Soviet forces could very well occupy the entire Korean peninsula and would therefore have Korea under Soviet control. On 12th April 1945 President Roosevelt died and the incoming President was Harry S. Truman. On 14th August 1945 Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and informed the allies of its unconditional surrender but the USSR continued its attacks and occupied Manchoukuo, southern Karafuto, the Kuriles and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. On the 2nd September when Japan signed the Potsdam Declaration the USSR had already completed its occupation of Manchoukuo and north-east Korea. The Korea Government General signed an instrument of surrender with the United States on the 9th September 1945.

After Japan signed the instrument of surrender in September 1945, the Korea National Foundation Preparatory Committee formed by Ryo Un-Hyong and his colleagues announced the Korean People’s Republic, and the Five Provinces Central Administrative Committee represented by Cho Man-Sik was set up; this encouraged a mood of nation building among the Korean people with the holding of representative elections for a united government. At the same time, the Republic of Korea Provisional Government active in China maintained that it was the legitimate government of the country.

The US and the USSR however did not accept the establishment of a self-determining government by the Korean people. In order to prevent the USSR occupying the Korean Peninsula, the US proposed that it should be divided. Thus, in 1948 two countries emerged, with the USSR exercising trusteeship north of the 38th Parallel and founding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) under Kim Il-sung, whilst to the south of it the US moved in to take control under a military government and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) emerged under Syngman Rhee. The division between the two countries being the 38th Parallel see Figure 1.

Figure 1, Japan Showa stamps 50 sen and 1 yen cancelled in North Korea, on acceptance sheet for insufficient or unpaid mail, by Japanese hand-stamp reading ‘Pyeong-yang, 1. 10. 4’ indicating Liberation year 1 (1945).
Figure 1, Japan Showa stamps 50 sen and 1 yen cancelled in North Korea, on acceptance sheet for insufficient or unpaid mail, by Japanese hand-stamp reading ‘Pyeong-yang, 1. 10. 4’ indicating Liberation year 1 (1945).

The Allied foreign ministers subsequently met in Moscow on the 7th December 1945, and decided to form a trusteeship for a 5 year period, during which time a Korean Provisional Government would prepare for full independence, they also agreed to form a joint United States – Soviet Union commission to assist in organising a single ‘Provisional Korean Democratic Government. The ‘Trusteeship’ proposal was immediately opposed by most Koreans in the South and initially by those in the North but changed their position under Soviet direction.

The joint-commission met intermittently in Seoul from March 1946 until it was adjourned indefinitely in October 1947. The insistence by the Soviet Union that only ‘democratic’ parties and social organisations upholding the trusteeship plan would be allowed to participate in the formation of a united Korean government – but this was considered unacceptable to the United States. The U.S.A. argued that the Soviet formula, if accepted, would put the communists in controlling positions throughout Korea.

In October 1945 People’s Committees were set up and at the same time, in order to unite these regional organisations, the North Korean Five Provinces People’s Committee was formed. On the 19th November 1945 this became a body to administer the whole of North Korea on a united basis with the establishment of a Central Administrative Bureau made up of 10 regional offices. On the 28th November this changed to the North Korea Five Provinces Administrative Bureau under Cho Man-Sik as committee head. In December 1945, however, at the Moscow Tripartite Foreign Ministers’ Conference it was decided that for a maximum period of 5 years trusteeship should be exercised over the Korean Peninsula by Britain, the US, China and the USSR.

The North Korean Provisional People’s Committee was set up on the 8th February 1946 with Kim Il-Sung as chairman and this incorporated an administrative bureau. On the 18th November the Third Conference of the North Korean People’s Committee was held and a sub-committee formed to draw up a provisional constitution. With the formation of the Korean Communist Party’s North Korea Regional Bureau Kim Il-Sung gradually removed forces opposed to him.

On the 22nd February 1947 the North Korean People’s Committee was again set up and restructured the administrative system. Then on the 25th August 1948 a North Korean Supreme People’s Council was convened by electing representative members and on the 9th September the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with Kim Il-Sung as its head was announced which launched a socialist regime, and then on the 12th October 1948 this was accepted by the Soviet Union whose military government thus ceased.

The Postal Service in North Korea
In North Korea the situation continued unchanged immediately after the war with Japanese stamps and Showadated cancellers continuing in use. There are few complete covers to show how the stamps were actually used and no official memoranda have been found to throw light on the situation, which thus remains unclear. Conclusions therefore have to be drawn from the handful of letters and postage-prepaid receipts that exist. The diary of Okada Takashi who worked at the Kaisen post office describes the situation after Japan’s defeat as follows;

With the entry of the Soviet Army into Pyeong-yang on the 24th August 1945, resulting in that on the 2nd September communications between postal offices were cut and in the confusion that followed a service could not be maintained. Duties were transferred on the 30th September and having handed over to Korean officials I made a smooth withdrawal from my work. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the function of the office consisted mainly of loading mail onto the weekly international train, and things were virtually at a halt with the exception of telegraph and telephone.
Mr. Okada managed to leave Korea on 1 August 1946.

With the establishment in October of the ‘North Korean “Five Provinces People’s Committee’ the method of dating was changed and the year went from being Showa 20 (1945) to Liberation 1. Some offices had anticipated this and had already changed Japanese-language cancellers by inserting a figure ‘1’. An early example of this is the date 1. 9. 7 (7th September 1945) at Chinnampo on a letter with two 5 Sen Togo stamps. Another example is the one shown below, see Figure 1, with a cancel reading 1. 10. 4 (4th October 1945) at Pyongyang. Both of these show that the ‘1’ base year was used early on. The comb cancellers of the time were of the type that already had the full stops inserted, as they are now, and there are no full stops on the date figures themselves. Month or day figures were probably filed down to produce the figure ‘1’.

In 1946 a year figure of ‘2’ was used to denote the year Liberation 2. For Liberation Year 3 though the Westernstyle calendar was reverted to with the figure ‘47’ being indicated. So, for 1945 – ‘20’ or ‘1’ were used, for 1946 – ‘2’ or ‘46’ and for 1947 – ‘47’ was used in the year slot of the canceller. On 12 March 1946 North Korean 50 chon stamps were issued for letters and 20 chon stamps for postcards. As the postcard rate was 25 chon, this 20 chon stamp was used to make up the rate on the 5 Sen Kusonoki postcards still in stock, with 1 chon equalling 1 sen.

Showa stamps continued in use for a time after the war without being overprinted but were superseded as Korean stamps were issued, at which stage their use was prohibited.

Figure 1 illustrates part of an ‘Acceptance Slip for Insufficiently or Unpaid Mail Items’ from Pyongyang dated 4th October Year 1 (1945). Stamps were in short supply in North Korea at war’s end and the measure adopted was to total up the amount of money collected for insufficiently or unpaid mail items on any one day on one receipt form. At that stage letters handed in at post office counters did not have a postage stamp put on, but had a ‘fee collected’ hand-stamp applied and were sent as prepaid items.

A number of such forms dating from 1945 have been found that illustrate use of the Showa stamps in this way, but none from 1946. The ten different value stamps so far recorded are as follows;

2 Sen Nogi Maresuke 3 Sen Nogi Maresuke
4 Sen Togo Heihachiro 5 Sen Togo Heihachiro
10 Sen Map 20 Sen Fuji and Cherry Blossom
30 Sen Itsukushima Shrine50 Sen Kinkakuji
1 Yen Great Buddha 5 Yen Fujiwara no Kamatari

Only stamps that have been used on receipt forms or on letters are known; no examples of postcard use have been found. But the 5 Sen Kusunoki postcard, having first been accepted ‘as is’ but representing a rate of 5 chon, then saw the postcard rate raised to 25 chon and had the newly-issued Korean stamp added to make up the rate. It was used in that way until official Korean postcards were brought out in July 1948.

In Liberation years 1 and 2 the Japanese postcards were in use, initially the 3 sen postcard was used during the 5 sen postcard rate period from 15th August 1945 (Liberation 1) to 11th March 1946, some of these postcards were locally overprinted for Official use, a typical example is shown in Figure 2, whilst some for normal usage were still in use during the 25 sen rate period from 12th March 1946 (Liberation 2) until h 1949 an example of usage is shown in Figure 3.

Table 1, Valuation of Showa stamp usage in North Korea:

CountryTypeRateStamps usedUsed example
North KoreaLetter10 Sen2 x 5 Sen Togo¥400,000
2 Sen Nogi with
4 Sen Togo
¥400,000
Stamps on intra-office receipts for fees collected¥200,000

Table 2, Postal rates in North Korea, assumed from actual examples of use:

Dates in forceLetterPostcardRegistration FeeLetter to Japan
15/8/45 – 11/3/4610 Sen5 Sen30 Sen-
12/3/46 – -/3/4950 Sen25 Sen1 Yen1 Yen
-/4/49 – -/10/511 Yen50 Sen5 Yen2 Yen
11/51 - ….10 Yen5 Yen50 Yen?20 Yen

Under Soviet Army control and until North Korean Central Bank banknotes were issued on the 6th December 1947, Bank of Korea notes from the Japanese period circulated. No official memoranda have been found that give postal rates for North Korea, and so the figures in the table above are assumptions based on such covers as have survived. To start with, Japanese stamps and cancellations remained in use in their original form after the war and postal business was conducted based on unchanged postal rates. New stamps were issued on 12 March 1946 and that is probably the date on which postal rates were altered.

Figure 2, Japanese 3 sen postcard overprinted, wording on imprinted stamp ‘Business Communication’ and on central heading ‘Official Postcard’, sent at the 5 sen postcard rate from Kyeommipo to Hwanghae-do Postal Administration, with hand-stamp reading 2 sen collected / Kyeommipo.
Figure 2, Japanese 3 sen postcard overprinted, wording on imprinted stamp ‘Business Communication’ and on central heading ‘Official Postcard’, sent at the 5 sen postcard rate from Kyeommipo to Hwanghae-do Postal Administration, with hand-stamp reading 2 sen collected / Kyeommipo.
Figure 3, Japanese 3 sen postcard sent from Shineuiju, North Korea, to Osaka, Japan. Cancellation of ‘Shineuiju, 2. 8. 2’ (2nd August 1946) then hand-stamp ‘Shineuiju, 2 sen Fee Collected’, incorrectly rating the postcard at 5 sen, then to Shineuiju, Tokiwa-cho post office were further ‘Fee Collected’ hand-stamp applied making the correct rate to Japan (rate unknown). Then Russian censorship ‘GOM 918’ at Shineuiju Peoples Security Station, Japanese Censorship and U.S.A. Censorship in Japan.
Figure 3, Japanese 3 sen postcard sent from Shineuiju, North Korea, to Osaka, Japan. Cancellation of ‘Shineuiju, 2. 8. 2’ (2nd August 1946) then hand-stamp ‘Shineuiju, 2 sen Fee Collected’, incorrectly rating the postcard at 5 sen, then to Shineuiju, Tokiwa-cho post office were further ‘Fee Collected’ hand-stamp applied making the correct rate to Japan (rate unknown). Then Russian censorship ‘GOM 918’ at Shineuiju Peoples Security Station, Japanese Censorship and U.S.A. Censorship in Japan.

Overprinted Showa stamps
Soldiers evacuated from North Korea brought back with them Showa stamps overprinted with a hammer and sickle within a star and these were on sale in the Japanese stamp trade in about 1947, see Figure 4 below. These are regarded as souvenirs and not as actual issued stamps. The value on these overprinted stamps is in kopek and it is likely that Russians were involved in this business.

Figure 4, Illustrations of the privately overprinted Showa stamps, 20kopek/17sen, 30kopek/25sen, 50kopek/15sen.
Figure 4, Illustrations of the privately overprinted Showa stamps, 20kopek/17sen, 30kopek/25sen, 50kopek/15sen.
Figure 5, Internal Post Office Receipt showing usage of Japanese stamps in North Korea after WWII.
Figure 5, Internal Post Office Receipt showing usage of Japanese stamps in North Korea after WWII.

The Receipt form for Unpaid or Insufficiently Paid Mail has been translated by Nicholas Pertwee and the following notes are based upon his translation.

Figure 5 shows a rare example of the usage of Japanese Showa stamps at Pyeong-yang (hand written at top of form) main post office on the 4th October 1945 following the end of WWII and whilst North Korea was under Soviet Union occupation. The usage of Japanese stamps in North Korea is extremely rare due to the shortage of stock and the inability to receive further supplies, I am given to understand that several of these receipts exist although I have never seen any other also I do not know if stamps used on covers or postcards exist although in theory this is possible. The cancels on the stamps is are far from clear but I have reconstructed a cancel, see Figure 6, in a manner in which I consider it should appear ‘Pyeong-yang, 1. 10. 4’, (4th October 1945).

Figure 6, reconstructed cancel from Receipt for unpaid items, Pyeong-yang, Liberation year 1 = 1945.
Figure 6, reconstructed cancel from Receipt for unpaid items, Pyeong-yang, Liberation year 1 = 1945.

In order to understand the usage of the form it has been broken down into four main sections, reading down the form, as follows;

  • First Post,
  • Suburban,
  • Second Post,
  • Third Post,

The ‘First Post’ spans the horizontal rows 1 and 2 with printed numbered from 1 – 17 and 18 – 33.
The ‘Suburban’ post spans row 3 and is numbered from 1 to 8.
The ‘Second Post’ spans row 4 and is numbered from 1 – 17.
The ‘Third Post’ spans rows 5 and 6 being numbered 1 – 17 and 18 – 32.

Each row consists of four lines, the first being the individual numbers as mentioned above, then three lines for
information as follows, this section of the form is shown separately in Figure 7.

  1. Ku Name, (Printed numbers),
  2. Running Total, (red amounts),
  3. Receipt Stamp, (clerks chop),
  4. Returns, (red amounts).
Figure 7, Suburban Post entries for the 4th October 1945.
Figure 7, Suburban Post entries for the 4th October 1945.

Accounting; the handwritten figures in the bottom two rows (normally used to record Third Post item) are the Days total amounts collected, 7yen 72sen less the amounts returned of 1yen 88sen, leaving a total of 5yen 84sen collected which is the total of the stamps affixed to the form. To achieve the addition of 7yen 72sen you have to include the 20sen in the first row No. 8 which appears to be crossed out. The 1yen 88sen figure is the total of all returns but appears to be 12sen short and would actually have been 1yen 76sen.

The Pyeong-yang Post Office seems to have been very well staffed by the number of different name chops that are applied to the form for the one day of the 4th October 1945, the postal clerks being a mixture of mainly Japanese with some Korean and one Chinese worker, with some 25 + name chops being applied to the receipt form with a wide variety of names.

Kiku Shimbun and the British Society for Japanese Philately (BSJP)
This article was reprinted with permission from the editor of the Kiku Shimbun. The Kiku Shimbun is the magazine of the British Society for Japanese Philately (BSJP). For more information please see the website of the BSJP.
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