Featured image: Korea Society, cropped from Youtube
Update at 20:00 KST: This article has been amended to include a response from Cornell University Press, Armstrong’s publisher
Charles K Armstrong, a long-time Korea studies professor at Columbia University, has been found to have plagiarized sources used in his critically-lauded 2013 book “Tyranny of the Weak” and will retire, his employers said this week.
In a statement, Media Relations Director at Columbia University Caroline Adelman said that an internal investigation had determined that Armstrong had breached the university’s research standards.
“Consistent with Columbia’s policies and procedures governing research misconduct, the University has determined that Professor Charles K. Armstrong committed plagiarism in his book, Tyranny of the Weak,” Adelman said.
“We have communicated this finding to our faculty,” the statement added.
Armstrong, who was on leave from Columbia from the Fall 2019 – Spring 2020 period, “is no longer teaching or supervising Columbia students,” it added.
Allegations of improper sourcing and misattribution in Armstrong’s “Tyranny of the Weak” – awarded the prestigious John K. Fairbank Prize for East Asian History by the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2014 – first emerged in 2016.
The claims were, in part, sparked by a blog post by Dongseo University’s Brian Myers, in which he revoked a previous recommendation of the book following the discovery of “major” sourcing errors in the book.
Many of these errors were detailed by Korea University’s Balazs Szalontai, who ultimately documented 98 cases in which the “content of the cited source bears no relation to the text.”
Szalontai’s suspicions were, in part, triggered by similarities in sourcing used in his book, “Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era: Soviet-Korean Relations and the Roots of North Korean Despotism, 1953-1964,” and Armstrong’s work.
Amid a growing scandal in the academic community, some rushed to Armstrong’s defense, arguing the errors were inconsequential to his wider argument in “Tyranny of the Weak.”
In July 2017, almost a year after the claims against Armstrong first emerged, the John K. Fairbank Prize for East Asian History were withdrawn, with a statement by the organization saying the author had “corrected the citation errors and, out of respect for the AHA, has returned the Fairbank Prize.”
Asked to comment on Columbia University’s conclusions this week, Szalontai instead pointed NK News to now-deleted remarks made on a prominent Korean studies Facebook group.
Columbia’s findings this week are “only the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” he said, accusing the university of seeking to downplay the extent to which Armstrong plagiarized his work.
A 2018-dated draft report by the university’s committee tasked with investigating Armstrong’s research provided by Szalontai, which NK News has been unable to independently verify, reveals that instances of plagiarism may have begun “as early as 2004.”
That report, Szalontai wrote, “rigorously documented that Professor Armstrong had started to plagiarize my dissertation… and to create dozens of fabricated sources” that year.
These fabrications, he said, had helped Armstrong win a coveted tenured position at Columbia University.
“In 2004, Professor Armstrong submitted several draft chapters of Tyranny of the Weak (that is, the plagiarized chapters) in his tenure application,” he wrote. “Impressed by his ‘original archival research,” the tenure committee duly granted him tenure.”
Szalontai also accused the AHA, which revoked Armstrong’s John K. Fairbank Prize in 2017, of seeking to downplay his offenses.
“The AHA council, having found Professor Armstrong guilty of plagiarism and fabrication and revoked the Fairbank Prize, later decided to provide him with an escape hatch,” he wrote.
“That is, to make a statement that mentioned ‘errors’ and claimed that he had returned the prize on his own initiative.”
Another North Korea scholar echoed this disappointment, telling NK News that the Armstrong case revealed broader issues in the academic community.
“Once Charles Armstrong was exposed as a man who routinely uses fabricated sources in his works, he was finished as a scholar – and him resigning or not would not have changed anything about this,” Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said.
“What we have here is a case of extreme academic dishonesty and the offender is still getting a paid year on a sabbatical and the opportunity to resign peacefully.”
Professor Armstrong did not respond to requests for comment from NK News this week.
Cornell University Press, the publishers of “Tyranny of the Weak,” said in a statement that they would no longer be selling Armstrong’s book.
“In light of recent developments, we will be declaring the volume you reference out of print,” Martyn Beeny, co-interim Director, Marketing and Sales Director, said in an email.
Edited by Chad O’Carroll