In June, North Korean media reported that the nation issued a set of stamps showing the magpie, which symbolizes the national bird. Previously, North Korea called goshawk, or chammae in Korean, its national bird, explaining that the bird’s strength and bravery resemble those of Korean people. It is assumed that the recent change was made during the adoption of a new law on national symbols early this year, in an apparent move to spruce up its national image as friendly.
In July, North Korea also unveiled a stamp portraying farming activities. The country had set 12 major economic goals for this year and put top priority on grain production. It seems the new stamp reflects the state policy of placing emphasis on agriculture.
In the North, stamps are used to mail letters, of course. But they are also used as a means of regime propaganda and a diplomatic channel to deliver messages to the outside world.
According to the essay posted on the website of Kim Il-sung University in July 2020, stamps have traveled between people and between countries since the first postage stamp was issued in Britain in 1840. In the writing, stamps are described as “the securities of a nation,” “jewels made of paper” and “little diplomats.”
North Korea sells stamps to overseas collectors to promote its attractions and spread political propaganda. That is, the country can publicize its national image and bring in much needed foreign currency at low costs. For North Korea, this is a very important business.
Stamps reflect the history, politics and culture of a country. In today’s edition of Korea, Today and Tomorrow, we’ll learn about the meanings of North Korean stamps from Dr. Yee Ji Sun at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
In November last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s daughter Kim Ju-ae appeared at the site of the test-launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile.
At the time, Kim Ju-ae took a photo with people who contributed to the missile firing. In February this year, the Korea Stamp Corporation in the North disclosed stamps about leader Kim Jong-un’s inspection of the Hwasong-17 missile launch. Out of eight stamps, five showed the leader’s daughter, including the one featuring her walking with her father hand in hand against the background of the missile.
The first appearance of Kim Ju-ae in stamp designs drew attention all the more because signs had been detected of North Korea building the personality cult surrounding the young girl.
In fact, family members of North Korea’s top leaders often appeared on stamps. For example, North Korea issued stamps showing different images of Kim Jong-suk, the grandmother of Kim Jong-un. The North released stamps that contain the images of parents and grandparents of regime founder Kim Il-sung and also commemorative stamps about his uncle Kim Hyong-gwon and his younger brother Kim Chol-ju, under the theme of the Korean independence movement.
Top leaders themselves appeared on stamps as well. North Korea issued a stamp featuring former leader Kim Jong-il alone for the first time in the 1980s, when he officially became the country’s second-in-command. The first stamp about current leader Kim Jong-un was released in 2011, right after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. The two men appeared together on the stamp, but only the name of Kim Jong-il was shown.
The image of the father and the son, against the backdrop of Chonji Lake on top of Mt. Baekdu, was also featured on a stamp commemorating the fourth Workers’ Party representatives’ meeting in 2012. In the same year, North Korea issued a stamp to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union, and the stamp shows leader Kim Jong-un and the members of the union.
A stamp featuring Kim Jong-un alone first came out in 2013, a year after the leader took power and right after he delivered his first verbal New Year’s message.
So, why did North Korea include the image of the leader’s daughter in stamps lately?
First, the stamps represent the solidity of the so-called “Baekdu bloodline” of the Kim family. The leader’s second-born child, in particular, could set an example for the nation, which is grappling with the declining birthrate.
Second, unlike the secretive and closed families of former leaders, the current leader has opened his family to get closer to the public. It seems he tries to borrow an image from European monarchies. Royal families in Europe have emerged as influencers on social media and pop stars. They disclose some parts of their marriage, childbirth and their children growing up to win people’s mind and popularity. It appears that North Korea tries to take a similar path by featuring the leader’s daughter.
Third, the North shows the leader’s love for his daughter. It could be a wake-up call for people who still prefer sons over daughters and also contribute to improving public perceptions about women.
North Korea tends to issue stamps in consideration of internal situations or international affairs. In this context, the stamps showing Kim Ju-ae could be interpreted as a message toward the outside world.
The stamps featuring the leader’s daughter has a hidden message that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development is safety gear that ensures the survival of young girls living in the country, like Ju-ae, rather than an armed provocation against the world. Also, the stamps accentuate the image of a normal family and a normal state, diluting the negative image of North Korea as a scary, rogue nation. Through the stamps, we can read North Korea’s intention to change its national image from dictatorship to a monarchy.
In the North, the private life of the Kim Il-sung family had been strictly confidential. Family members had never been made public until they made a debut on the political scene. By featuring Ju-ae, however, North Korea shows what the royal family is like. In a sense, it could be viewed as a strategy to facilitate leadership succession of the Baekdu bloodline. Otherwise, North Korea might emulate hereditary monarchies in Europe.
Korea established the Korean Postal Bureau in April 1884 and issued its first stamp series, called “Moon” series, in November that year. South Korea issued its first stamps in August 1948 under the name of “Republic of Korea.”
The first stamps of North Korea were issued in 1946, under the instruction of Kim Il-sung who raised the need to create new stamps that would reflect the nation’s reality and the people’s lives. The stamps had the designs of the Rose of Sharon and Samson Rock at Mt. Geumgang.
The Supreme Leader was quite satisfied to see the nation’s first stamps, saying that the people will now be able to exchange letters with their own stamps.
In August 1946, Kim Il-sung appeared on a stamp for the first time, against the background of the Korean flag of Taegeukgi.
The Korean Stamp Catalogue published in North Korea in 2015 explains that the Rose of Sharon has been one of the most beloved flowers in Korea since ancient times. It is a hardy perennial that starts blooming in May and produces new flowers every morning until fall. The Korean word for the flower, mugunghwa(무궁화), means “eternal blossom that never fades.” It is said that in old times, China called Korea “a country of the Rose of Sharon.” Now, the Rose of Sharon and Taegeukgi(태극기) are South Korea’s national flower and flag, respectively. But they had been regarded as one of the symbols representing the Korean race since before Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Therefore, North Korea had no resistance or aversion to the flag of Taegeukgi before it created its own national flag.
Both South and North Korea issued stamps even during the Korean War. North Korea, in particular, released various stamps to boost the morale of its troops. Local media say that the country issued a total of 31 kinds of stamps during the war.
North Korean stamps are mostly about promoting the socialist regime. That’s why many stamps contain the images of laborers.
Workers appear on the 1948 stamps commemorating the second anniversary of the enforcement of the labor law. The stamps symbolize that North Korea is a country of workers and farmers. The 1953 stamps about post-war recovery and economic revival also highlight workers. The New Year’s stamp released on January 1, 2000, features the image of a laborer holding a blazing torch high, with his eyes showing his strong will. The phrases, “Strong and Prosperous Nation” and “Solidarity,” are printed on it. Workers often appear on North Korean stamps, indicating that workers play a leading role in industrial development and revolution. The image of a laborer with a strong body and intense eyes implies that laborers serve as warriors in industrial growth and revolution.
In the Encyclopedia of North Korea, a stamp is defined as a paper certificate affixed to a piece of mail as a sign of postage. Many North Korean stamp designs are focused on the achievements of the family of the top leaders.
In many cases, stamps have political purposes and are used to promote the communist ideology. Therefore, North Korean stamps might give a hint about the country’s relations with the outside world.
In North Korea, the entire stamp production process, including selecting themes and designs, is joined by the officials of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the International Department under the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party as well as the Foreign Ministry. Stamps serve as a diplomatic channel to publicize the positive side of the regime and its superiority.
North Korea issued stamps featuring leader Kim Jong-un and former U.S. President Donald Trump after their first summit. Even after their second summit broke down in Hanoi, North Korea did not issue anti-American stamps, leaving open the possibility of further negotiations with the U.S. Through the issuance of stamps, we can read what North Korea has in mind about its relations with foreign countries.
North Korea had issued the so-called “anti-American stamps” since 1952 in the middle of the Korean War but stopped publishing them in 2018 when the first North Korea-U.S. summit took place.
These days, postage stamps are rarely used, as people can use e-mails and messengers. But stamps are still considered important in North Korea. In 2012, right after Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea opened the Korea Stamp Museum on the birthday anniversary of Kim Il-sung on April 15, known locally as the Day of the Sun. On major anniversaries, including the Day of the Sun and the party foundation day, the country holds stamp exhibitions. It has expanded the foreign branch of the Korea Stamp Corporation. The state stamp bureau has also opened a website to allow overseas customers to purchase North Korean stamps online.
North Korean stamps have undergone a major change in terms of content and quality in recent years, in line with the leader’s pursuit of a civilized, strong and prosperous socialist nation. Stamp designs were rather simple in the Kim Il-sung era, while elements of realism were introduced in stamps during the years of Kim Jong-il, based on juche or self-reliant art. In contrast, the current Kim Jong-un era actively uses photographs and embraces various techniques of expression and advanced printing technology. It is assumed that North Korean stamps have reached the world level, in terms of quality.
North Korea issues stamps and holds stamp exhibitions on various national anniversaries to promote the regime and deliver messages internally and outwardly. We’re looking forward to seeing stamps featuring the image of a unified Korean peninsula.