Charles K. Armstrong, a Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at the Ivy League Columbia University, is facing criticism over allegations of improper sourcing and misattribution in his 2013 book “Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992”.
The book, which examines the foreign policy of the DPRK from 1950 until 1992, received critical acclaim upon release from across the North Korea-watching community, was described as a “must read”, and was awarded the prestigious John K.Fairbank Prize for East Asian History in 2014.
But documents seen by NK News and now openly available, compiled by Balazs Szalontai of Korea University, cite up to thirty instances in the book where sourcing is alleged to be either incomplete or inaccurate. Some, too, have pointed to similarities with Szalontai’s book “Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era: Soviet-Korean Relations and the Roots of North Korean Despotism, 1953-1964,” in translated source material.
One passage in “Tyranny of the Weak” describes a trip by Kim Il Sung to Moscow in 1953 and an agreement by the then USSR to give North Korea aid and forgive its outstanding debts, citing Russian-language archival sources. But, as Szalontai writes, the citation does not fit the material.
“The content of the cited source bears no relation to the text,” he writes.
Another comes in a passage referring to political purges in the early 1950s in North Korea and a general crackdown on educational institutions which took place in the country as Kim Il Sung consolidated his rule amid The First Congress of Writers and Artists. The cited source – a “study of North Korean education” – makes no mention of the congress.
“When I started to read the part about the 1955 North Korean famine (pp. 84-87), the similarities with the analogous part of my book (pp. 62-67) just leaped at me, but there was no reference to my book whatsoever,” Szalontai, a regular contributor to NK News, said in an email. “…I checked the Russian archival sources cited by the author, and these findings further reinforced my suspicions.”
“In dozens of cases, the date and type of the cited Russian files perfectly matched the date and type of the Hungarian reports I had cited about the same subjects.”
Armstrong, when contacted by NK News, did not comment on any of the specific issues critics have raised with the book, but insisted he was working with his editor and the Cornell University Press to rectify the problem.
“Rather than respond individually to each specific point, I would like to take all of the criticisms into account and make necessary corrections and proper attribution where appropriate, and I have discussed this with my editor,” he said in an email. “I don’t believe any of the alleged errors undermine the basic arguments of the book, but certainly where problems are found they need to be corrected.”
“I am checking each of Dr. Szalontai’s criticisms against both the primary and secondary sources used for my book.”
The controversy has sparked extensive debate among North Korea watchers, provoked by a lengthy criticism penned by Dongseo University professor of North Korean literature B.R. Myers on his personal blog.
Despite Armstrong’s claims that the alleged errors at no point impact the strength of his argument, as Myers points out, there are passages where the mistakes mean that an entire argument is undermined.
One passage, for example, discusses the North Korean response to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, citing a Rodong Sinmun article entitled “Historical Lessons We Have Gained from the Study of Affairs in Czechoslovakia”. In it, Armstrong argues, the party organ criticized the USSR’s invasion of the Eastern Bloc country and cited it as evidence of the importance of self-determinism of all countries.
But, as Myers points out, the article “bears no relation to Armstrong’s account”, with no criticism of the Soviet Union and no reference to national self-determination.
Facing mounting criticism on a Korea Studies forum, Armstrong responded on September 17, saying he would work with his publishers and with Szalontai to rectify the issues. This was something that Szalontai, in a post on the same forum on Tuesday – some ten days later – said had not yet happened.
Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University – also a regular contributor to NK News – was one of several who initially raised concerns about the integrity of the book and Armstrong’s failure to cite Szalontai’s work: about which, he pointed out, Armstrong had “made rather disparaging remarks”.
“Like many others I knew that something was wrong with the book, but the scale of problems is shocking indeed,” said Lankov. “The factual evidence is quite convincing, and chances that we are dealing with a long chain of unintentional mistakes are, frankly, low.”
“There is a list of dozens of footnotes which lead to archival documents which either do not exist or have content completely unrelated to what is stated in the book text.”
The debate has baffled many, particularly given that, as one observer puts it, the book was so “widely praised for its underlying source base”, and the allegations raise serious questions about the extent to which books such as Armstrong’s are fact-checked and their citations assessed.
“If this is indeed what it seems to be, this is one the biggest scandals in academia in years,” argued Lankov. “But I still do not understand why it was done at the first place.”
Armstrong’s editor at Cornell University Press, Roger Haydon, despite numerous attempts, was unable to be reached for comment.
Featured image: Wilson Center, Youtube, Cropped
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to year of Kim Il Sung’s death as 1992. In fact, he died in 1994.