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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The Dangerous World of Stamp Collecting

by | August 4th, 2013 | 07:00 am

There are those of us that just get a kick out of danger. This proclivity may take the form of participation in extreme sports, draw one towards risky occupations, or even – for the most steely hearted – send you into the dangerous world of North Korean stamp collecting.

Despite sanctions, if one goes through the proper channels, even United States firms can – and do – trade in both goods and services with the DPRK. One such item that makes its way out of the Hermit Kingdom to our showcases are collectible North Korean postage stamps. NPR recently attained 73 pages of correspondence between the Treasury Department and eighteen U.S. firms attempting to attain import licenses for a range of North Korean merchandise. Smack dab between the obvious (children’s footwear) and the eyebrow-raisers (medical samples to fight drug-resistant tuberculosis) was the Mystic Stamp Company, which was petitioning to attain thousands of dollars in unused North Korean stamp sheets for American collectors.

Like any collectible, rarer and harder to acquire usually equals more expensive. While the embargo places some barriers in the way, this is partly offset by the fact that stamps are cheap to print and the North Koreans churn them out. You can take a look at the product of the Mystic Stamp Co.’s regulatory hoop-jumping on their website, where a collection of North Korean stamps sells for close to $600.

While the only risk for Mystic Stamp Co. seems to be the denial of a license, things can get a lot dicier for the collectors on the ground. NK News recently ran a story on one such Dutch collector and dealer who was imprisoned on espionage charges during a trip into North Korea to purchase stamps (fun game: close your eyes and imagine what a stamp enthusiast named Willem van der Bijl looks like, then click the link to the story here). Van der Bijl had connections to the Korea Stamp Corp. since the 1990s, and appears to enjoy some access on the dozens of stamp-collecting trips he has taken to the country.  At one point, he was even authorized to open his own North Korean branch office.

But, as anyone dealing with North Korea could guess, Van der Bijl’s luck was bound to run out. On his 24th foray into North Korea in 2011, he was arrested along with his branch’s employees and imprisoned for two weeks with almost no contact to the outside world.

While Van der Bijl is now safely back in the Netherlands after what sounds like a very uncomfortable experience , his visage still remains property of the state: in August 2011, the Pyongyang Times ran an article featuring the picture of a “Wim van der Bijl, director of the art building material company of the Netherlands” who just so happened to be smitten with North Korea’s democratic election process.

For Van der Bijl, this flirtation with dangerous collectibles is over. And for all of you aspiring daredevil North Korean stamp collectors out there, let this serve as a cautionary tale to think twice about trying to get your hands on these puppies.