As some of our readers are aware, the sleepy field of North Korean studies is now engulfed in a major controversy which, as time goes by, looks increasingly serious. NK News has already written about the emerging problem, and perhaps it is time to explain briefly what has happened and why our field is in such disarray.
In 2013, Cornell University Press published a book by Dr. Charles Armstrong, a professor at Columbia University, and a well-known specialist on North Korean history. The book, titled ‘Tyranny of the Weak’, was meant to be a general review of the North Korean foreign policy since the 1950s. The work was initially met favorably, and many people, including myself, recommended the book as a systematic and readable introduction to the subject. But worrying problems began to emerge with the book soon after, and as time went on, the situation looked increasingly bizarre.
The book, as its author claims, is based on extensive research in the former Soviet and East German archives, and there are numerous footnotes leading to the archival documents which are used to support what is written in the book text. These include, for example, some very specific statistics or quotes from diplomats and politicians.
…worrying problems began to emerge with the book soon, and as time went on, the situation looked increasingly bizarre
But a quick check of the original Soviet documents (easily available now as PDF copies in libraries and/or held privately by researchers) demonstrated that many if not most of the footnotes to the archival documents are seriously wrong. The documents which are mentioned in footnotes either do not exist or do not have content related to what is said in the main text.
For the full information, one can now consult a table of such ‘text-citation disconnect’, available online. This is an interesting and instructive reading for any student of history. There are 34 cases mentioned in the table, and new cases keep appearing. The table was compiled by Balazs Szalontai, a historian of North Korea of Hungarian origin, now employed by the Korea University in Seoul (as we will see, there are valid reasons why he took the lead in checking the sources).
To show the nature of the ‘text-citation disconnect’ problem, a few examples will suffice. I will limit myself to the Soviet sources which I am familiar with and can easily access – but there are similar problems with some East German and Chinese sources as well. To make your life easier, I will use the case numbers borrowed from the table, linked above.
Let’s start from the beginning and have a look at Case 1 in the above-linked table (unfortunately, it is quite typical). On page 56, ‘Tyranny of the Weak’ describes Kim Il Sung’s visit to Moscow in 1953 and North Korean leader’s attempts to negotiate the Soviet aid grants. The footnote leads to a Soviet Foreign Ministry document, which has a suitable date and might well be related to the issues, but is not. It is relatively easy to check since the PDF of this Soviet document is now available in the National Library.
As I checked, the document turns out to be a record of a conversation between two mid-ranking diplomats, with no reference to the Soviet aid or Kim Il Sung’s Moscow visit whatsoever. In actual fact, it deals with North Korean workers in the USSR and the situation in a Russian-language school in Pyongyang, as well as some other small issues.
…most of the references to the Soviet archival sources (as well as a noticeable part of references to the East German archival sources) lead to nowhere
Then proceed to Case 2. On page 68 ‘Tyranny of the Weak’ talks about the Soviet assistance to the Pyongyang post-war reconstruction, the activity of the Pyongyang City Rehabilitation Committee (PCRC), and involvement of both Soviet Ambassador and Kim Il Sung with these efforts.
The footnote leads to a Memo of Conversation which records a lengthy talk between a Soviet diplomat and a top official of Pyongyang’s KWP office, so, judging merely by the title, the document, once again, might contain such information, but, once again, it does not. Actually, the Soviet diplomat and his North Korean interlocutor spoke largely about the rules concerning membership of Leninist parties.
It is important that we are not talking about just three or four or even ten cases – everybody makes mistakes, after all, and perhaps only a handful of historians’ works are completely free from occasional blunders with sources or footnotes going AWOL.
In this case, however, the number of mistakes (or, rather, strange discrepancies) is truly staggering: it looks increasingly likely that most of the references to the Soviet archival sources (as well as a noticeable part of references to the East German archival sources) lead to nowhere.
THE PLOT THICKENS
Unfortunately, this is only part of the story. There are more serious problems with ‘Tyranny of the Weak’: the information which is absent from the archival sources cited by Armstrong is pretty much present in works of other scholars – above all, in Szalontai’s book published by the Stanford University Press in 2005.
This book, titled “Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev era,” is based on a decade of the author’s work in the Hungarian archives, and this is the book which is not cited by Armstrong. He is clearly aware of the book, about which he’s made some slightly disparaging remarks in print.
In most cases of the ‘text-citation disconnect,’ the information which is so strangely absent from a cited archival document (or attributed to a non-existent document) in Armstrong’s book, still can be traced to some part of Szalontai’s work where it is usually based on some Hungarian archival source. It is important to emphasize that the data in question is very specific – we are talking about exact quotes from prominent political and diplomatic figures or pieces of statistical data.
Again, we are not talking about a small number of cases – though even a small-scale case of such ‘unacknowledged borrowings’ would and should ring academic alarm bells. Alas, cases of such ‘textual coincidences’ (to use another generous term) are counted in dozens.
The data in question is very specific – we are talking about exact quotes from prominent political and diplomatic figures or pieces of statistical data
Let’s have a look at Case 20. When reading Armstrong’s book, I came across a piece of statistical data (the total number of people purged in 1958-1959), which I know too well: it was me who found the figure in a Soviet archival document, a Memo of conversation between a Soviet diplomat and North Korea’s security police chief. The document was declassified in the 1990s.
However, in Armstrong’s book the reference to the statistics (clearly indicated as provided by the North Korean security boss) is footnoted to page 833 of ‘Communism in Korea’ a well-known book by Scalapino and Lee which was published in 1972, when the document in question was still beyond the reach of scholars. Of course, it did not contain such information.
However, comparison with Szalontai’s book revealed a peculiar picture. Once, around 2000, I forwarded the document to Szalontai who then cited it in his book, making all due reference to myself. However, in the same paragraph of his book, Szalontai also mentions other purges-related data which were followed by the footnote to Scalapino and Lee, page 833 – the very same reference Armstrong wrongly used in his book.
Again, we are not talking about a small number of cases – though even a small-scale case of such ‘unacknowledged borrowings’ would and should ring the academic alarm bells
It seems very likely that Armstrong borrowed the data from Szalontai wholesale, with reference to Scalapino and Lee’s book, but did not notice that this particular reference is related to the final sentence alone, not to the entire data Armstrong cites.
The same pattern seems to be the best (perhaps, only logical) explanation of Case 11. On page 88 of Armstrong’s book one can find the following statement: “In September 1955, the USSR gave North Korea full control of Sokav, the Soviet-Korean airline.”
It is followed with a footnote which leads to Soviet archival document which is described nebulously but seems to be a memo of a conversation between the Soviet Ambassador and Kim Il Sung on October 19, 1955. The document does not mention the transfer of Sokav, even though it deals with the subsequent economic problems.
However, there something bizarre in the text: the particular airline was frequently mentioned in other Soviet papers, but it was never called Sokav, since its only Russian name was SOKAO. The name of Sokav was indeed used, but only by the Hungarians! So, in his book Armstrong is using the specifically Hungarian name of the company, while referring to a Soviet source which does not mention it anyway (and other Soviet sources, when referring to the airline, predictably use its Russian name).
As readers might already suspect, the information about the Sokav – SOKAO transfer is present in Szalontai’s book, on page 76, followed by a footnote which indicates a Hungarian diplomatic document, compiled on October 19, 1955, as the source.
This case highlights a pattern. When Armstrong borrowed data from Szalontai’s book without acknowledging it, he seems to have used one of two strategies. On the one hand, when Szalontai cites a published English-language source, Armstrong ‘borrows’ the footnote wholesale – and sometimes does so without realizing that the source cited in it contains information unrelated to his own assertions.
When Szalontai cites a Hungarian archival source, on the other hand, Armstrong cites a non-existent or irrelevant Soviet/German/Chinese document that, in most cases, bears the exact same date as the relevant Hungarian one.
In short, there is abundant reason to suspect that all these seemingly bizarre references to non-existent or irrelevant sources were conceived to cover up the ‘unacknowledged borrowings’ from Szalontai’s book.
It is hard to think of any benign explanation for these issues. All this cannot be explained as a result of one large slip by an exceptionally irresponsible research assistant. As it became clear recently, same ‘text-citation disconnect’ can be found in earlier publications of Armstrong’s, dating back to 2005 or 2006.
All this constitutes a rather surprising and unexpected development: these are all indications that we are dealing with the case of plagiarism and footnote-mining on a truly massive scale, with very few precedents in recent academic history.
FALL FROM GRACE?
Nevertheless, there is something strange about this case: if it was a plagiarism indeed, it was totally unnecessary. Armstrong is an established scholar, employed by a world leading university. He has done good research in the past, and he is also a big name in the academic bureaucracy where he commands great respect.
And the book in question, being a general review of a broad subject, would lose little, if anything, had its author chosen to properly cite works by Szalontai and other scholars. After all, it is only normal to rely on what colleagues have done, especially when you write a general introduction to a subject.
These are all indications that we are dealing with the case of plagiarism and footnote-mining on a truly massive scale, with very few precedents in recent academic history
Furthermore, it is difficult to expect that one can commit plagiarism on such scale and hope that it would remain unnoticed for a long time.
One can hold only hope against hope that we are dealing with a chain of highly improbable events – even though, frankly speaking, I cannot imagine which combination of unintentional actions and oversights would possibly produce such an outcome. It will tremendously help if Armstrong produces the documents he claims he used – even though, obviously, their archive numbers are going to be completely different from what we see in his book’s footnotes.
These documents, as a matter of course, must contain the information which now can be seen as plagiarized from Szalontai or other sources (there is a number of data and figures which are not supported by cited archival documents, but have no parallels in Szalontai’s work, and hence must have come from elsewhere).
Let’s hope it will be the case: not only his reputation will suffer, but our entire community will be dealt a severe blow. Armstrong’s blunder let down all of us, including those scholars who once reviewed his manuscripts or wrote favorable reviews of his books (I nearly became one of them), as well as his current and former students.
Nobody will gain anything from what is happening now, but remaining silent would be worse. This is the case when the records should be set straight, no matter what the political and bureaucratic consequences are – not for our sake (we all will pay some price), but for the sake of future students of Korean studies.
Edited by: Oliver Hotham
This text was updated at 1700 KST, on the request of the author.
Featured image: Korea Society
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