North – South: A unique cover (Backgrounds and Images)

North Korea

(Note: this article is a follow-up to the article from Lloyd Heath republished in December 2019.) I am happy to be able to provide an illustration (Fig. 1), and some observations, of this extremely special item of post-war Korean postal history. The sender’s address on this cover (using the Northern Korean transliteration of place names) is Yong Je Jung, 45, Changchon-myon, Changchon-Eup, Kosung-gun, Kangwon-do, North Korea (now Changcheon-up, Goseong-kun, Gangwon-do, ROK). The cover was sent to: Box no. 8, Yongsan Post Office, Seoul, for the attention of Kwang Up Sok.

The total postage prepaid is 50 cheon, which was the North Korean single domestic letter rate (which included mail to South Korean address). The cover has been initially censored by the Soviet authorities in North Korea ‘ㄱㅓㅁ 2|0’ (Censor 20 – the numerals are separated by a spacer), and on arrival in Seoul ‘C.C.D. J 840’ / PC (Civil Censorship Department Japan / Postal Censor – censor’s identification number 840). After examination, the cover was resealed with adhesive tape inscribed OPENED BY / U.S. ARMY EXAMINER. The five-line red marking was applied before re-sealing, and may have been used to identify an item for further examination. Alternatively, it might have been put on by one of W Lloyd Heath’s colleagues to make sure that he got to see a ‘special’ item – we will probably never know! As was usual at the time, there is no receipt datestamp.

Fig. 1: Cover front and reverse

This cover was one of 4,903 pieces of first-class mail which were handed to the South Korean and US Military Government’s representatives at the tenth inter-zone postal exchange at Yohyon, North Korea, on 17 June. Exchanges commenced on 15 March 1946 subsequent to one of the few matters agreed upon by the Soviet-US Joint Commission deliberations which had taken place earlier in the year.

Fig 1a: The cancellations in more detail

The North-South combination is, in my opinion, unique. The secondary element of rarity is the use of the North Korean 1946 (13 March) 20 cheon issue. I am only aware of the existence of four examples of this stamp’s use. Maeda-san’s collection contained 2 singles on pieces of postcards – this value was ostensibly only issued to correctly uprate 3 sen Japanese postcard remainders to the 50 cheon domestic rate. Two covers are known to me; the subject of this article, and another with three examples overpaying the 50 cheon single domestic rate (Fig. 2). The overpaid example (31 May 1946, from Pyongnam Songchon to Cheonam Gwangyang in South Korea), predates the combination cover, and it is useful to compare the similar treatment given to both by the Soviet and US censors.

Fig. 2: Cover front and reverse

It appears that the sender originally wanted to take advantage of the significantly lower South Korean rate for domestic letters of 10 cheon. However, when the cover was either given to the local postman to send (normal practice in rural areas), or on presentation at the Kosong post office, it was pointed out that the minimum postage payable in North Korea was 50 cheon and that 40 cheon was needed to make up the proper rate, taking into account the 10 cheon already affixed (albeit by the stamp of the ‘puppet’ Southern government!). The North Korean stamps were placed over the bracketed manuscript notation ’38 line South’ ((38以南行)) that was required (but not always added) on North-South mail, and the base of the final character is just visible below the stamp on the right.

Fig 2a: The cancellations in more detail

As to how the combination came about, this requires some conjecture. The 38th Parallel at this time was a porous border. The 1945 line had split the Japanese-era province of Kangwon horizontally (Fig. 3 – map showing the location of the sender, and the division of the counties of Kangwon province). Soviet troops and North Korean police manned the Northern border checkpoints, but in many cases these were located at least one kilometer apart, and no physical barrier was in place. Students at schools on either side of the line, and farmers with land straddling the Parallel, were granted unrestricted access, and there was no apparent automatic prevention of people travelling from North to South or vice versa, unless stringent measures were enforced for example during cholera outbreaks.

The likelihood that a family member, or the writer of the cover had acquired or been given a South Korean stamp is therefore well within the bounds of contemporary possibilities. That the sender fully believed any stamp would be acceptable for posting a letter to Seoul, is also demonstrated by the fact that the South Korean 10 cheon was placed in such a way as to leave the ’38 line South’ note unobscured. Perhaps it was a gamble, but had it worked, it meant the sender would save significantly in the process.

Fig. 3: Map of the area.

There are differences in the apparent strength with which the ‘Kangwon Kosong’ North Korean datestamp was applied to the pair of 20 cheon and the single 10 cheon, but the variation does not seem remarkable when compared to the treatment of other multiple-stamped covers of the time.

Another question has been raised about the cover’s provenance, because of the connection with W Lloyd Heath. Heath was an ardent philatelist, and it is not difficult to find self-addressed first day covers of South Korean issues bearing his address. He was involved in organised philately through the Collectors Club of New York, the Masonic Stamp Club and probably others. In addition, he was a regular correspondent for many US newspapers, and regularly supplied the first reports of new South Korean issues plus occasional sketchy information about northern emissions. He was active in the Civil Censorship Department, and was keen to note on his examination reports any details of Soviet censor chops or North Korean political slogan cachets that appeared on covers intercepted by the authorities. There has never been any evidence, however, that Heath manufactured covers. Certainly, other than the extreme rarity of the North-South stamp combination cover under discussion, there is nothing about it which looks remotely like one of Heath’s philatelic souvenirs. The story outlined in his KP article is entirely plausible.

Comparing the two covers prepaid with the 20 cheon value, other than the not-uncommon lack of US re-sealing tape, and the different Soviet censor’s number, the absence of the red stripes, referred to above, on the 60 cheon paid example is the key variation in the handling of the two covers.

Unfortunately, there is no information on the cover’s ownership after Heath’s collection was dispersed. I have not found any record of any public auction of his holdings. It came into my possession through a private purchase, after it failed to sell at an Interasia auction (Sale 43, 11-14 January 2014, Lot 4591). The consensus at the time was that the estimate proved to be the primary reason for it not selling, as the price would have represented a record realisation for a North Korean cover, by a huge margin. Prior to the auction, it is believed to have been owned by a collector based in Japan, but it was not in Maeda-san’s collection. The auction description, which is not completely accurate, refers to the idea of villages using North or South Korean stamps as they did not know which was valid in their specific location. Although there may possibly have been cases where this confusion existed, this cover is the only example of both countries’ issues being used in combination. In my opinion the combination did not come about through a confusion of postal validity, rather than as an informed attempt to save money on postage by using what appeared to be the cheapest available means of prepayment. Ultimately, the gamble failed for the sender, but the recipient and his family did very well through Heath’s generous exchange of cigarettes and sweets, and Korean philately has acquired a unique treasure.

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Anthony Bard
I collect North and South Korean Postal History from 1945, focusing on the Korean War and the countries involved in the conflict and post-Armistice commissions. I live in London.

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