Korean postal affairs under American occupation (1946)

South Korea

Prior to occupation of southern Korea by American forces, the postage used was Japanese. Since the American occupation, and up to the present time, they have continued to use Japanese postage on hand. Importation of additional stamps from Japan was, of course, immediately stopped. No attempt was made to over the postage on hand in order to distinguish it from regular Japanese postage.

Inasmuch as the only postage available was that which remained on hand at the time of the American occupation, there soon developed a shortage in various denominations, especially in the lower values. As the various post offices were unable to supply the public with the proper denominations of stamps, they would accept the mail matter upon payment of the required fee, and would then cancel or handstamp the letter, “Postage paid by other means.” The amount of the fee paid was then recorded in a cash book, and, at the end of each day, the postmaster applied to the cash book page sufficient postage to cover the entire day’s business. These stamps were then cancelled. By doing this they were able to utilize the higher denominations.

A couple of months ago a design for a new Korean commemorative, or independence stamp, was made and approved. These stamps are now being printed in Japan, and from information recently received, should be available in Korea within the next month or six weeks. I am not acquainted with the design of the new stamp, as I did not see the proofs, for this matter had been handled prior to my arrival.

Fig. 1: THE OVERPRINTING OF #55-60 Photo shows the Korean who overprinted the stamps of Japan, issued under U.S. Military Rule and the presses upon which the work was done. Note stone press on which two sheets could be overprinted at the same time. Japanese stamps to be overprinted are stacked in to piles on the left, each pile to be a different denomination. Scott’s #58-59 were overprinted at the same time, thus we have 58a and 59a. The operator apparently reversed the sheets.

It is my understanding that the first stamps of this issue will be 3 chn (sen); 5 chn; 10 chn; 20 chn; 50 chn; 1 wean (yen); and a 5 chn postcard. I also understand that while these stamps are being printed in Japan through the co-operation of the Military Government in Japan, the stamps will be gummed and perforated in Korea. At this time, I have no information as to when other denominations will become available.

Pending the arrival of the new Korean independence issue , it has become necessary to overprint several denominations of the Japanese issue now on hand in order to change them into de-nominations more commonly required. This is now being done on seven different denominations, as follows: 5 sen on 14 sen; 10 sen on 40 sen; 20 sen on 6 sen; 30 sen on 27 sen; 1 yen on 15 sen; 5 yen on 17 sen; and 10 yen on 8 sen.

Herewith are copies of each of the above The enclosures, for illustration, are proofs, or samples, as indicated by the Japanese characters which are stamped in red, these characters meaning “sample.”

These seven are the only stamps which have been authorized to be overprinted at the present time. To my knowledge only one sheet of 100 of each of the denominations I have mentioned have been overprinted and cancelled as samples or proofs. The overprinting for general use is proceeding at the normal rate, and these issues will be available at some of the post offices in a very short time.

Proofs, or samples, have also been overprinted as above on the following: 5 sen on 5 sen; 20 sen on 20 sen; 50 sen on 50 sen; 1 yen on 1 yen. These, however, have not as yet been authorized for further printing and distribution. It was the intention to overprint all of the Japanese stamps on hand so as to identify them as Korean postage. This was not approved, due to the time which would be required, and the limited facilities available for overprinting.

Readers of ‘STAMPS’ will probably be interested in the manner in which these overprints have been made. As stated previously, all the postage stamps of Korea had formerly been printed in Japan. There are no facilities for doing this type of work in Korea. Local commercial printing plants are scarce. and none of them were set up to overprint a sheet of stamps which had already been gummed and perforated.

The main office of the Bureau of Communications has a small printing, or duplicating plant connected with it The plant is in a small one-story wooden building, and is operated by five or six Korean or “Gook” printers. The overprinting job is being accomplished on two stone bed presses, each operated by two men. A rubber stamp was made, on which there were twenty-five impressions. Each impression on the rubber stamp was separately designed by hand, therefore each these impressions may have a slight variation. The rubber stamp is then impressed four times on a special paper, using a special ink. (Not being familiar with the various printing processes, I am unable to describe this in adequate terms.) The impression on this paper is then applied to the stone surface of the press, leaving on this a slightly raised, or embossed, design. This is then inked with a hand roller The sheet of stamps is placed over the design, a metal sheet is placed over the surface; then while one “‘Gook ” holds the sheet in place, the assistant “Gook” operates a handle, which slides the stone under a pressure plate. The stone is large enough to accommodate two sheets of stamps.

Fig. 2: THE BUILDING IN WHICH THE OVERPRINTED STAMPS NOS. 55-60 WERE PRINTED Building at the right was the headquarters of the Korean Department of Communications which contained the stamp vault. These buildings were completely destroyed during the invasion from the north. (Photos and notes are courtesy of CoL GT Gunston, Oct. ’61)

At the time I observed the operation, they were printing two denominations on each press–a 30 sen on 27 sen, and a 20 sen on 6 sen on one press, and a 10 sen on 40 sen, and 5 sen on 14 sen on the other. How they are going to avoid getting few of these sheets mixed up, 1 don,t know, but in their oriental way, they seem to muddle through all right.

In talking with the printer, through an interpreter of course, I was informed that they are able to print approximately one thousand sheets per day on each press, and that they are able to obtain about three thousand impressions from each negative. Some of the issues now being overprinted will require two, or probably three, negatives.

At the present time I do not know how many of each denomination will be overprinted. The overprinting of these stamps comes under the main Bureau of Communications, and does not come under my jurisdiction. Foreign trade-at present is not authorized in Korea and there is no way of dealing in foreign exchange. I mention this as there is no doubt there will be many collectors in the United States who will desire to obtain copies of these overprints and also the new Korean issue. At this writing I do not know how this can be done, except through having someone now in Korea make the purchase. This condition may clear up, however, in the near future.

Extra figure (1): Here is an example of a cover with a stamp from this surcharged series on it. From the Allinstamps blog.

In order that the G.I.’s in Korea may obtain copies of the stamps, I am establishing a philatelic agency in the Seoul Central Post Office, which comes under my jurisdiction. To my knowledge this will be the first philatelic agency ever to be established in Korea. Due to present restrictions, the sale of stamps will be limited to persons now residing in Korea, as we have no native foreign mail services except between Korea and Japan. The only means, of sending mail to the United State is through the Army postal system, which of course is limited to those now connected with the Army in Korea, and which would not be available for the use of the philatelic agency.

As soon as arrangements can be made, I will endeavor to set up this agency in such a manner as to be able to take care of the demands of other countries. The stamps which will be purchased by the G.I,’s will be on the Army exchange rate of 15 yen per dollar, which we understand is considerably less than the exchange rate which is being quoted in the New York Exchange. (An American dollar at present rate of exchange does not go very far in this country of inflated prices as they ask 80 yen for a light bulb, and 5 yen for a pot of coffee. The postage stamp is about the only thing which can be purchased at its normal value.)

Readers will probably be interested in the postal system in Korea. About thirty to forty percent of the business of the post offices, I would judge, is postal, the balance being telephone, telegraph, postal life insurance and the collection of taxes.

The postal business includes regular, or ordinary mail; registered mail; parcel post; money orders; and postal savings. During the war, due to the shortage of help, the Japanese eliminated special delivery and special handling of mail matters. All telegrams are handled through the Post Office, the fee being paid by affixing postage stamps in the required amount.

Extra figure (2): The unissued values of the series. From 고려우표사.

In the Seoul area the telegrams are forwarded to a central telegraph office where all telegrams are transmitted and received. In other areas, however, a transmitting and receiving set constitutes part of the equipment. In some instances in the outlying areas, where telegraphic equipment is not available, the message will be sent by telephone, using the Morse code, with voice transmission. A rather unusual practice. In the Seoul area the telephone exchanges are separate from the post offices, while in other areas, a telephone switchboard is a part of the post office set-up.

The use of money orders is a very common means of transmission of debt payments, as banking facilities are not as commonly utilized here, proportionately, as in the United States. The postal savings is also very heavily used as a depository for surplus funds, although at present, due to lack of work, high prices, and other factors, this business is now slightly in reverse. Life insurance is also a major portion of the post office system as it is also in Japan.

Of courses the entire system here is identical with the Japanese system. The influence of the occupation by the United States south of the 38 parallel, and of the Russians north of that parallel, may bring some changes, but it is my belief that such changes will be slight.

Prior to our occupation, practically all major positions in the Bureau, and all postmasterships were held by Japanese. At present the Japanese have been nearly one hundred percent eliminated, and all key positions and postmasterships are occupied by Koreans. This has brought about a decrease in efficiency, due to lack of adequate experience of many of the appointees, but this is gradually being worked out The volume of business today is but a fraction of that during the war. This is due to the unsettled conditions, the closing of war industries, the present state of isolation, and many other reasons. From now on, however, conditions should gradually improve.

Fig. 3: Maj. Gen. Archer L. Lerch, U.S. Military Governor of South Korea purchasing copies of the Emancipation issue of 1946 from Mr. Kiel Won Bong, the Korean Director of the Bureau of Communications under U.S. Military Government Rule. (Photo courtesy Col. G.T. Gunston)

Korean post offices are divided into two main classes–ordinary and extraordinary. All ordinary post offices are the name implies. There are three such ordinary post offices in the Seoul area, and others are scattered in the principal cities of the various provinces. The ordinary post office is responsible, for the pickup and delivery of mail.

An extraordinary post office, of which we have forty-eight in the Seoul area, are of various sizes, the average having a postmaster and five or six employees. These post offices are set up throughout the city, and in the majority of the small towns. They handle the normal postal business, except that they do not pick up or deliver mail. Their main business is usually money orders, postal savings, and insurance. The buildings are usually small privately owned, and dirty. Running an extraordinary post office is somewhat like conducting a small business, for the postmaster’s income depends a great deal upon his volume of business. While he is given some financial help by the Bureau, and is also allowed a very small salary, his main source of income depends upon commission from stamp sales, life insurance premiums, registration fees, and what he may have left over from his monthly allowance after he has paid his expenses. Normally his living quarters are a part of the post office building.

What I have reported here applies only to that part of Korea south of 38 parallel, as we have no information as to what is happening in the Russian area.

Background to this 1946 article
This article was originally published in Stamps Magazine (6 February 1946). Today this magazine is part of “Mekeel’s & Stamps Magazine“. The current owner of that title, John Dunn, has given us permission to republish that article here again. It was republished before by the KSS, in KP Vol. XII No. 2 (May 1963). Three grainy images are from scans of the 1963 reprint.

(Stamps Magazine Editor’s Note 1946 – Intro: The following story is published just as it was received by airmail from Lt. Col. Gunston in a letter dated January 19, 1946. It contains much information of a nature that collectors have awaited with much curiosity, as nothing on Korean philately has been forthcoming up to now) and therefore, this is another scoop for ‘STAMPS’. The author went overseas a few months ago as a Military Government Officer, and was assigned to the M.G. in Korea. Thereafter he was assigned to the Bureau of Communications, Seoul Local Bureau, which supervises communications in five of the eight provinces now under American control. The Bureau of Communications in Japan and Korea is a government monopoly controlling the telephone, telegraph, and post office system.)

(Stamps Magazine Editor’s Note 1946 – Post Scriptum: As we are about to go to press, we note a wireless dispatch in The New York Times for February 7, 1946, which states that for the first time in thirty-six years Korean postage stamps will be put on sale in Seoul, Korea, on May 1st. Corroborating the information concerning these new issues as given in Col. Gunston’s article, the values given are 3, 5, 10, 20, and 50 sen, and one yen. The dispatch also states the stamps will commemorate the liberation and the smaller denominations will carry the Korean national flag, while the higher values will show a Korean family holding aloft a symbolic liberty torch.)


2 thoughts on “Korean postal affairs under American occupation (1946)

  1. Besides the unissued stamps, there are a few errors found on these issues. The 5 ch was mistakenly printed also on a 40 s dark violet, Scott 56a; the 20 ch mistakenly printed on 27 s rose brown, Scott 58a; The 20 ch on 6 s has a double surcharge, Scott 58b; the 30 ch was also mistakenly printed on a 6s light ultra, Scott 59a; and the 30 ch on 27 s was also has a double surcharge, Scott 59b. All these errors have relatively low catalog values and the Scott 59b double sucharge is only valued at $25 mint, yet I have never been able to find one for my collection. The other errors are fairly easily found. If anyone has the 59b double surcharge available, I would be very interested in obtaining one. Bob

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