Revoking a Recommendation
B.R. Myers (Updated 5 July 2017)

13 September 2016

In a generally mixed review for Acta Koreana, I recommended Charles K. Armstrong’s book Tyranny of the Weak (2013) for college readers new to the subject matter.

No other book deals with so much of Pyongyang’s foreign relations. Armstrong’s prose, for its part, is always concise and jargon-free. The price is right too. Tyranny of the Weak is therefore a good textbook for undergraduate use. I plan to assign it to my own students while urging them to read it critically. (Acta Koreana, December 2013)

In the rest of the review I criticized Armstrong’s adherence to what I call the Juche myth. I did not go into the isolated textual errors of which I was then aware, because they did not seem to me to bear greatly on any big picture. I became aware of more problems later, some minor, some major.

I consider it minor if Armstrong struggles with German dates (4 August 1963 should be 8 April, as I found out when requesting the misdated document from Berlin), or posits the start of DPRK media reference to Kim Jong Il as “party center” not in early 1974 but in late 1975, or misidentifies a Soviet counselor as an ambassador. (See pages 127, 214 and 84.) Whatever those errors may say about the extraordinary language skills Armstrong lays claim to in his introduction, they do not, in the context of Tyranny, mislead the reader to any great degree. Let him who has published an error-free first edition get worked up about them.

One reason I now list the mistakes above is because, to judge from Amazon’s Look Inside function, Cornell University Press carried them and others into the paperback version of the book published earlier this year. Somebody has to say something before Ambassador A. M. Petrov ends up a real historical figure. Even if left uncorrected, of course, these errors would not in themselves pose a big obstacle to using the book in classrooms. Students could be given a list of errata, for example.

What I consider major are Tyranny’s text-citation disconnects. These things can happen, of course. You delete an assertion from your paragraph, then go into your footnote to delete one of the two citations in there, but you take out the wrong one. Or your publisher, new to academic texts, cuts the endnotes from their moorings in the chapter proper, then forgets to match them up after you correct one of the two parts. That last was what happened to me a few times in the hardback edition of The Cleanest Race (2010). Fortunately the discursiveness of my endnotes made obvious what had happened, and Melville House shared my impatience to get a fixed (paperback) edition out in 2011.

What troubles me, therefore, is not so much the existence or quantity of text-citation disconnects in Tyranny as the nature of them. Below are some examples. So that all North Korea scholars can easily check my assertions, I have uploaded a Rodong Sinmun issue, and refrained from citing any example from the citations of GDR sources. On second thought, I think it’s better to add at least one example of citation from East Bloc materials. See Example 4 (added on 16 Sept 2016).

As for Armstrong’s use of Soviet material, there are plenty of Russian-reading Korea scholars out there more qualified to judge it. Had they found anything improper, they would surely have said something by this time. Now ain’t that right, fellas?

Example # 1

Armstrong describes a congress in Pyongyang in 1953 as follows:

Han began his attack at the First Congress of Writers and Artists, held on September 26-27, 1953. By this time Im Hwa had already been arrested and executed, and Han accused Yi T’ae-jun, another KAPF veteran, of having been a follower of Im…. Han also attacked Kim Sŭng-nam, the composer, accusing him of abandoning Korean musical traditions…. Visual artists were similarly accused of neglecting Korean traditions and lacking patriotism. (Tyranny 81)

The footnote number after patriotism leads to the citation: Yang and Chee, “North Korean Education System, 1945 to Present,” 127-135.

My Comment:

Yang and Chee’s article (“Educational,” by the way) appeared in a special issue of The China Quarterly later published in book form as North Korea Today (1963). There is no mention of the writers’ congress in it. This leaves one wondering what source Armstrong really used.

As it happens, Balázs Szalontai describes the same events in very similar fashion in his book Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era (2005), on the basis of Hungarian documents:

At the First Congress of Writers’ and Artists, held on 26-27 September, Han Sŏl-ya… attacked… a writer named Yi T’ae-jun, accusing him of having been a protégé of Yim Hwa…. Han Sŏl-ya accused Kim Sŭng-nam of having neglected the traditions of classical Korean music…. artists should paint pictures about the Korean War in classical style. (Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era 40-41)

What Szalontai includes that Armstrong doesn’t is a remark about the rise of North Korean nationalism, “a process already reinforced by wartime patriotic propaganda.” This parenthetical aside comes with its very own endnote: Yang and Chee, “North Korean Educational System,” North Korea Today, 127-135 (Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era 276).

Example # 2

Armstrong writes:

In a conversation with a Soviet diplomat in 1960, Pang Hak-se, minister of the interior, referred to some 100,000 ‘reactionaries’ detained… (Tyranny 105)

The source given: Scalapino and Lee, Communism in Korea, vol. 2, The Society, 833-835.

My Comment:

That information is not in Communism in Korea, either on those pages or anywhere else, because the relevant Soviet archives were not made accessible to American scholars until long after that book was published. The information can, however, be found in Szalontai’s book (2005):

In 1960, Interior Minister Pang Hak-se told a Soviet diplomat that the security services had “revealed” approximately 100,000 “hostile and reactionary elements”…. I would like to thank Dr. Andrei N. Lankov for this piece of information. Some other authors believe that as many as 2,500 to 6,000 people were imprisoned or executed in 1958-1959. See, for instance, Scalapino and Lee, Communism in Korea, 833-835. (Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era 297)

Example # 3

Here Armstrong talks about the Kim regime’s response to the crushing of the so-called Prague Spring in 1968:

The Soviet crackdown on the Budapest uprising in 1956 was a cause for concern among the leaders in Beijing and Pyongyang; among other things, the crackdown resulted, as we saw in the previous chapter, in Pyongyang withdrawing North Korean students from Hungary…. North Korean anxiety about Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe was not expressed publicly at the time. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia was another matter. Needless to say, neither China nor North Korea was in sympathy with… the Czech dissenters. Their concern was with Moscow’s blatant intervention into the affairs of a fellow socialist state…. Chinese media attacked the Czech [sic] invasion in the most vitriolic of language. North Korea’s response was fairly mild in comparison. The Rodong Sinmun published an article entitled “Historical Lessons We Have Gained from the Study of Affairs in Czechoslovakia.” The most important “lesson” was the one North Korea had long emphasized: the inviolable right of all nations to self-determination. Juche was, as much as anything, a position of independence in the Sino-Soviet Cold War. (Tyranny 156)

The only source cited: “Historical Lessons We Have Gained from the Study of Affairs in Czechoslovakia,” Rodong Sinmun, August 23, 1968, page 3.

My Comment:

Let me isolate each statement. 1) The Soviet crackdown on the uprising in Budapest led the DPRK to withdraw students from Hungary in 1956. 2) Although not sympathetic to the Czech dissenters in 1968, the North Koreans’ main feeling about the events in Prague was indignation at Moscow. 3) Their media’s reaction? Fairly mild in comparison to Beijing’s vitriolic one, yet they did criticize the Soviet intervention. 4) The party organ responded to events in Czechoslovakia by emphasizing the right of all nations to self-determination.

How Juche of the North Koreans! And how groundbreaking of Armstrong to find this out. The consensus in Cold War studies has always been that North Korea joined North Vietnam in supporting the Soviet move. (See for example Richard Wich, Sino-Soviet Crisis Politics, Cambridge, 1980, 50.)

Alas, the claim that the crackdown on Hungary resulted in the withdrawal of North Korean students contradicts the very chapter of which Armstrong reminds the reader. Page 100 makes clear that (as is well-known) those students were withdrawn for fear they might have been contaminated by the counter-revolution the Soviets had crushed.

To back up his quite lengthy account of the North Korean line on Prague, Armstrong cites only that one Rodong Sinmun source. Its actual title is simply “Chesŭkkosŭllobensŭkko sat’ae ŭi ryŏksajŏk kyohun.” This should be translated “The Historical Lesson(s) of the Situation in Czechoslovakia.” The plural is optional, considering the content of the article.

For Korean readers I am attaching a rather large file of the entire relevant issue of the Rodong Sinmun. (I include the whole paper to prove that the article does not start on page 3, but on page 4.)

rodongsinmun1968

“The Historical Lesson(s) of the Situation in Czechoslovakia” bears no relation to Armstrong’s account.  No criticism of the Soviet intervention is expressed, nor is Juche, autonomy or self-determination so much as mentioned, to say nothing of the “inviolable right of all nations” to the latter. Most of the content consists of fierce condemnation of the Czech dissenters as “revisionists,” counter-revolutionaries, tools of US imperialism, etc, and scare-quote-studded rejection of their talk of “liberalization” and “democratization.”

This was much the same language then used in the USSR, where the pejorative “revisionist” had come back into vogue. I should also mention (as Armstrong does not) the highly significant fact that the Rodong Sinmun had published TASS’ report on Prague only the day before. (See B.C. Koh’s excellent article “North Korea and the Sino-Soviet Schism,” Western Political Quarterly, December 1969, for a closer discussion of all these media developments.)

In the penultimate paragraph of the “Historical Lesson” article, so-called sadaejuŭi or serve-the-great-power-ism appears as the third item in a list of “reactionary” tendencies to be opposed: “revisionism, dogmatism, serve-the-great-power-ism, bourgeois thought, feudal thought, etc.” Naturally this asks to be read in the context of the article’s earlier condemnation of Czech revisionists for waving the Stars and Stripes, falling for Yankee subversion, etc. Much more textual evidence than that is needed if we are to read an emphasis on every nation’s right to self-determination into what is, when you get right down to it, a rejection of Czechoslovakia’s.

Example # 4

Armstrong writes:

North Korean officials told the East European advisers in Pyongyang that they wanted to establish new industrial centers in mountainous areas of the interior, where they would be close to the mines and also less vulnerable to attacks from enemy naval forces, which had caused so much damage during the Korean War. (Tyranny, 63)

Source cited: GDR Embassy in DPRK, Report on Conversation with the Hungarian Ambassador, 29 October 1957. MfAA A 6979.

My Comment:

Here is the file of the document in question.

dok_29_okt1957_m1_a6979

As even beginning readers of German can see for themselves, the document in fact records the Hungarian ambassador’s informal remarks about the state of agriculture in his home country.

Szalontai, citing a Hungarian document from 1954 as well as B.C. Koh’s article “The War’s Impact on the Korean Peninsula” (1993), writes the following in his book:

[T]he industrial centers created by the Japanese in Korea … were too close to the sea and too far from the mines. Attacked by air force and naval gunfire, they suffered enormous damage during the Korean War. This is why the KWP leadership decided to construct the new factories in mountainous areas where it was easy to hide the machines in tunnels in event of war. (Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era, 50)

So there you go. Needless to say, we all make mistakes big and small, exposing in turns our ignorance, inattentiveness, laziness, bias, arrogance. Offended? All right: I make such mistakes. The reason I refuse to smile away the inaccuracies and untruths sampled above is because they do not appear to have been set down in good faith. I suppose Example 3 might have resulted from an almost complete lack of understanding of Korean. Anything’s possible, I suppose. Let’s just say: It’s an unlucky polyglot who has trouble with the foreign language he needs most.

I have no idea how many fellow professors or teachers followed my recommendation in Acta Koreana to use Tyranny of the Weak in their classes, or how many other people were encouraged by the review to buy it. None, I now hope. All the same, I hereby apologize for that recommendation, and revoke it.

In that same Acta review in 2013 I wrote the following:

Several pages unfold events and quotations in a sequence so similar to Balázs Szalontai’s Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era (2005) that one either starts or ceases to wonder why Armstrong was so reluctant to cite it.

An acquaintance who knew exactly what I meant said I’d gone too far by saying it in public. I had already been scolded like that for disrespecting another well-connected American scholar who, among other things, had written that lodging in a Korean home comes with a right to bed the mother.

When you speak out against the sort of people Leavis used to call “academic ward bosses,” you implicitly criticize the silence of others, which they must then rationalize by casting you as the bull in the china shop, the grandstander with no sense of decorum. You may even find that your name has become taboo.

On Youtube a while back, I stumbled across a public and of course panegyric discussion of Tyranny of the Weak that took place in Washington DC in October 2013. The venue, grotesquely enough, was the Woodrow Wilson Center, as if to drive home the primacy of coterie over truth. I needn’t explain what country this reminded me of. It was like some elaborate extension of the old joke about German studies being humorless, and Italianist conferences always starting late.

My favorite part of the video is about 55 minutes in, when the WWC’s own James F. Person — his eyes rarely straying from the guest of honor — tells how “sad” it is that an unorthodox view of Juche has been gaining “traction.” Rather than dignify the heretic by identifying him, Person refers only to “a certain scholar of North Korean literature, who shall remain nameless.”

Nameless? Fine by me. But not voiceless.

UPDATE (3 October 2016): From Berlin, News of More Bogus Sources

“Wir werden nicht schimpfen, aber die Erörterung wird rücksichtslos sein.” – Karl Jaspers

On September 21 I sent to the Political Archive in Berlin a list of 17 East German documents cited in Charles Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak (2013). My goal was to find out if the external research service that works with the PA would copy the documents for me. I was embarrassed by my inability to provide the proper titles of any of them, but Armstrong tends towards special vagueness in the citation of foreign-language sources.

A week later an archive employee wrote back to tell me that only one of the 17 documents could be tracked down with the dates and file numbers provided. That’s right, 1 out of 17. Under these circumstances, she gently concluded, I might not be needing that research service after all.

No, maybe not.

As a consolation the kind lady attached to her email, gratis, the lone document she had been able to find.

At this point I’m afraid I must “trigger” those scholars who, to judge from the Korean Studies listserv, are more horrified by the discussion of plagiarism, footnote-mining and fantasy citation than by the misdeeds themselves. I understand these people, up to a point. So numerous and grave are the known problems with Tyranny that the publication of additional ones seems gratuitously cruel.

I suspect there’s a good deal of what psychologists call compensation at work here too. Since Tyranny cannot be defended anymore — everyone seems to agree on this point — those who want to preserve a cautious neutrality in the discussion must find fault with the other side. “The stuff in Tyranny is bad, sure, but the uncollegial way it has been exposed is just as bad, if not worse.” Such is the apparent reasoning.

My reasoning is that a plagiarist is not a colleague. He has forfeited the right to be treated as one. And no, we don’t need to wait for some university’s formal investigation to see what is already obvious.

There’s a Four Yorkshiremen kind of vanity in thinking one’s own field uniquely cronyist. I try to guard against it. For the life of me, though, I can’t imagine Sinologists responding to such a scandal with the shoot-the-messenger hysterics and frantic red-herring hunts the Tyranny affair has unleashed on that Korean Studies discussion thread.

Anyway, as long as the book continues to be assigned to university students, the truth about it must be told as fully as possible. No one enjoys telling it. There is always something offensive in the details of cunning, as a very wise Englishwoman once wrote.

Long story short: The East German document to which I have just referred bears no relation to the assertions in Tyranny that it was cited to corroborate.

Armed security forces were sent to guard the East European embassies, a practice which, the East German embassy remarked, exceeded the security presence in East Berlin — a city much deeper in “enemy territory.” (Tyranny, page 121)

The citation in the attendant footnote (129) reads:

GDR Embassy in DPRK, Report, 15 August 1960. MfAA A 7064.

Here is the only document with that date in the relevant file.

mfaa_m1_a7064-15-aug-1960

As readers of German can see for themselves, it is a very brief letter to the GDR embassy in Pyongyang, informing it of the agenda for one day of a ministerial conference involving member states of the East Bloc’s Organization for Cooperation of Railways.

It was while reading this utterly irrelevant document that I began to find the whole Tyranny affair more farcical than upsetting.

The relevant information in (what else?) Szalontai’s book, based, inter alia, on a Hungarian source from (when else?) 15 August 1960:

On 2 August, the Foreign Ministry told the diplomatic corps that henceforth the soldiers guarding the embassies would prevent everybody, Koreans and foreigners alike, from entering an embassy unless the person worked there or had an appointment with the diplomats. In addition, a person might enter if an employee of the embassy, having answered the doorbell, was willing to let him in.

These measures affected primarily the East European embassies, because the Soviet and Chinese embassies had their own gatekeepers, which prevented the North Korean guards from halting visitors. Indeed, Soviet Ambassador Puzanov did not object to the new regulations, whereas the Czechoslovak, Polish, and Mongolian ambassadors often complained of them. The East German chargé d’affaires pointed out that in East Berlin, a city that lay much closer to the “enemy,” only those embassies were guarded by policemen which themselves asked for it. (Szalontai, Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era, 161)

I can think of no other explanation for Armstrong’s “deeper in ‘enemy territory'” except that it was an ill-advised effort to reword Szalontai’s “closer to the ‘enemy’.” It was of course West Berlin, and not the East German capital, that lay in enemy territory.

Another item for the table of “discrepancies” then.

All I’m left wondering at this stage is: Why? Why?

UPDATE (28 November 2016): Apologism vs the AHA

In 2014 I wrote an NK News article arguing that so-called “subversive engagement” ends up subverting us more than the North Koreans. It began like this:

Contrary to a Western canard, the German crowds at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 cheered and applauded Jesse Owens, and went home with their faith in Nazism unshaken. Most of the foreign visitors, on the other hand, returned to their countries with a better view of Hitler than before.

One of those who disagreed with me, James Hoare, countered with an article of his own on the website 38 North. In it he wrote:

[Myers] claims that all the visitors to the 1936 Berlin Olympics went home convinced that Nazi Germany was a great place. Really? All of them?

As you can see, “most of the foreign visitors” has become “all the visitors,” which promptly earns a sneer for its lunatic sweepingness. With an air of triumph Hoare then quotes William Shirer (a foreigner who was not impressed) as a notable counter-example of what he falsely accuses me of asserting.

I am used to being misrepresented, with careful avoidance of direct quotation, as a wildly polemic purveyor of extreme views. What I don’t understand is why people do this sort of thing online, where their readers are just a few mouse-clicks away from the truth.

Hoare goes on to accuse me of implying that not only every last foreigner, but every last German at the Olympics went home thrilled too. Does he really believe — would any child believe — that I implied that? When Hoare reads about the weekly sea of South Koreans calling for Park Geun-hye to step down, does he grumble, “Really? All of them?” Of course not. Such faux-obtuse pedantry is for writers who irk him on more substantial grounds.

It’s fun to see this same fellow presenting himself in a recent NK News article as a paragon of collegiality, a live-and-let-live fellow who would never take a scholar to task for mere errors. Not even for plagiarism or misattribution of sources? Especially not for things like that.

What Hoare cannot excuse is the recent criticism of Tyranny of the Weak and its author, which he professes to find mean-spirited. Here too, natch, he avoids direct quotation, so as to enjoy more freedom to mislead. In its evasive vagueness his piece recalls Rodong Sinmun editorials: the kind that rage at the enemy’s latest “slander” without divulging its content.

At one point Hoare writes of Tyranny’s detractors:

I am sure that as much damage has been done [to Korean Studies] by their ill-tempered comments as by their ostensible cause.

This would be forgivable hyperbole if the man expressed equal or at least serious concern about the issue at hand. He nods in that direction, but his heart just isn’t in it. Not once does he so much as mention Balázs Szalontai, the main injured party. So trivial does the misconduct in question seem to the former British diplomat that he sees nothing untoward, let alone actionable, in suggesting that research assistants might have been to blame. One bungling assistant each, I suppose, for Russian, German, Chinese and Korean sources? Since 2005?

He also suggests that the many unacknowledged liftings in Tyranny are extenuated by the mere inclusion of Szalontai’s book in the 200-title bibliography. How far a graduate student would get with that sort of defense can be imagined.

Special ridicule is heaped on the “high moral indignation” of Tyranny’s critics, and their alleged pretense that the world of scholarship is somehow “pure as the driven snow.” By riding around on the point that everyone makes mistakes, Hoare insinuates that the other side has been too self-righteous to concede it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As I wrote in September, a few updates ago:

I consider it minor if Armstrong struggles with German dates [or makes other innocent errors]…Let him who has published an error-free first edition get worked up … these errors would not in themselves pose a big obstacle to using the book…

[Text-citation disconnects] can happen, of course…[They] happened to me a few times…

Needless to say, we all make mistakes big and small, exposing in turns our ignorance, inattentiveness, laziness, bias, arrogance. Offended? All right: I make such mistakes.

Comparable remarks can be found in others’ criticism of the book. So yes, we all make mistakes. We get that. The problem — as Hoare knows only too well — is the amount of plagiarism and spurious citation in Tyranny that does not appear to have been accidental.

Contrary to his article, there has been far more nasty and sanctimonious rhetoric on the apologetic side of the discussion. I strongly recommend readers go through the thread on the Korean Studies listserv archive for September 2016 entitled, in reference to my blog post, “Re-Revised Posting: Revoking a Recommendation.” (I did not join the discussion.)

They will see that neither Hoare nor the moderators objected to the claim made early on that I am not to be trusted to judge anyone’s scholarship. Nor did they object when the four Tyranny-critical scholars, who were outnumbered even on the thread, were treated as a cruel “swarm” tormenting the Ivy League professor. How’s this for moralizing:

No balls, no decency, no academic conduct, and swarm mentality? …this is far more than just a shabby and tasteless style. You help changing [sic] essential rules of conduct and guide us into very muddy waters, and that is scary.

For the benefit of the incredulous, let me confirm: What is being described here as frighteningly indecent misconduct is not plagiarism or source fabrication, but the criticism of those things.

Yet in that listserv discussion, on my blog, and in Andrei Lankov’s NK News article, this criticism has consisted for the most part of straightforward constatation of the evidence. What panicked the apologists on the listserv, I think, was the way the items just kept coming.

They were also offended when Szalontai reacted sarcastically to the author’s claim (made in real or pretended incomprehension of the evidence already made public) that his “errors” were confined to a few Russian citations.

In short, this whole argument is a clash between long-codified, internationally accepted standards of academic ethics and a few Korea scholars’ idiosyncratic, newfound standards of proper academic etiquette.

I say newfound, because in the past writings of Tyranny’s apologists, I saw no trace of the almost Christ-like charity they now preach in chorus. Did they all find religion together, in mid-September 2016? Or might there be a more worldly explanation?

The best retort to them, in any case, is simply to invoke the American Historical Association’s Standards of Professional Conduct:

Scholarship flourishes in an atmosphere of openness and candor, which should include the scrutiny and public discussion of academic deception.

In closing I would like to remind everyone that in dozens of instances in Tyranny, a fake or irrelevant source is cited in pseudo-corroboration of information that had hitherto been published only in the secondary literature of other scholars, primarily Balázs Szalontai. In other words, most of the over 70 items in the table Szalontai has compiled (see below) can be broken down into two separate acts, one of plagiarism, one of source fabrication.

Tyranny thus contains over a hundred such acts, or more than one per three pages of the text. How rotten is this book? So rotten, you can’t discuss its source base — in any tone, in any public forum — without being accused of cruelty.

tyranny-of-the-weak_table-of-76-cases

UPDATE (8 January 2017): Cornell University Press Colluding in Whitewash?

Charles Armstrong has every right to defend himself, and to be given the benefit of the doubt if his defense is at all plausible. As I have said before, neither invalid citation nor plagiarism is an infallible sign of deliberate misconduct. In my very first posting on Tyranny I wrote of the (five or six) text-citation disconnects in the first edition of my own book The Cleanest Race, which came about in the editing stage, when my publisher put the endnotes in a separate file from the chapter proper.

As for plagiarism, let me again speak from embarrassing experience, the better to counter claims that we who criticize Tyranny do so from an arrogated position of scholarly purity. After studying the earliest Korean version of Kim Il Sung’s 1955 speech (1960), and using the English version in some of my classes, I did my own translation, so as to include phrases and paragraphs the North Korean translator had left out.

After publishing it in North Korea’s Juche Myth (2015), I noticed how many times I had lapsed into the formulations I knew so well. All translations are bound to look similar, especially when you’re dealing with an idiom so rich in stock phrases. That several of my short sentences (“What are we doing?”) would match perfectly with the earlier version was to be expected. But scattered among the 500 sentences are 20-some longish ones identical or nearly identical to those in the older version. Unintentional or not, it’s plagiarism; in the next edition I must acknowledge the debt to my anonymous forerunner.

My point (once again) is this: We all make mistakes, big mistakes, and for reasons others would not normally think of. Michael Bellesilles’ claim to have lost all his notes for Arming America (2000), however implausible it seemed, was not to be dismissed out of hand. I’ve yet to lose all my notes, but I wouldn’t put it past me.

Here’s the thing, though. The systematic combination of plagiarized material with spurious citation in Tyranny of the Weak could not possibly have resulted from anything except careful design. I suspect this is why the Columbia professor and his friends are yet to argue against the allegations at all. Instead their apparent strategy, the only one open to them, is to work against the very notion that such behavior is seriously wrong.

Last September, the first 3 “text-citation disconnects” I presented from Tyranny were treated by apologists as beneath notice, despite the apparent premeditation which had gone into them. My judgment, one professor intoned, was not to be trusted — as if the items were not on view for him to judge too.  As the weeks passed, the table of evidence swelled, to zero effect on the apologists. First 10, then 32, then over 60 such items were shrugged off as insignificant.

A new low was reached in November, when James Hoare wrote in NK News that Tyranny’s critics should all just relax, because history is such a fundamentally unreliable business. He even held up Hugh Trevor-Roper as a wise authority on how falsehoods sort themselves out over time — for which reason (so Hoare) we should preserve a collegial silence when we encounter them.

A week or so ago, on his Columbia webpage, Armstrong posted an entry in much the same vein. He would have us believe that a citation failure rate of every twelfth footnote falls within an acceptable margin of error — indeed, that such a history book can still be boasted of as “rich, multi-layered.” What he does not mention is that at least 75% of his many citations of hitherto untranslated Soviet documents (the “layer” that got the most attention from reviewers) are bogus.

Nowhere does Armstrong mention the plagiarism-fabrication couplings, let alone explain them. Instead he writes as if he has been slammed for a few inaccuracies here and there, which he explains away with cant about his challenging methodology. Apparently it involves working backward from secondary literature — no surprise there — and passing notes back and forth to research assistants. Who is meant to be swayed by all this, I cannot imagine. It would have to be someone completely ignorant of Szalontai’s table, which is not linked to.

And once again, the Columbia professor attributes improper academic conduct to Szalontai. That tells you all you need to know. As Fyodor Tertitskiy pointed out last month, no honest scholar who had accidentally lifted dozens of items from a colleague would dream of scolding him for not complaining courteously enough.

Armstrong drops the bombshell that Cornell University Press is rushing out a new edition of the book this spring, with 52 corrections. “Only 52?” might seem an odd retort, but 76 problems have already been itemized, and more are on their way. Can you see 24 things in Szalontai’s table that you wouldn’t want to fix, if it were your book?

But I suppose if Armstrong is to keep that Fairbank Prize, a face-savingly large number of criticized items must go uncorrected into the next edition, and the reader be damned. I marvel at Roger Haydon’s willingness to go along with all this, but then again, he never stopped plugging the original edition for its use of East Bloc sources.

This raises the question of which 24 items will make it into the less-falsified, less-plagiarized version. The Soviet-constructed nuclear power plant so casually mentioned in the original — will that return? And the report sent from the East German embassy in 1953, some six months before it opened? How about the diplomatic diarist who managed to be in Moscow and Pyongyang at the same time? We’ll just have to wait and see.

How different things would have been had Szalontai’s name been on Tyranny, and Armstrong’s on the earlier book!  The 60 or so liftings would have jumped out at every reviewer right away. And can you imagine the Columbia professor being treated on that Korean Studies listserv the same way the Hungarian was? Accused of indecency for taking his plagiarist to task? Told by colleagues to write a book review if he was so upset — the innuendo being that they didn’t mind in the slightest?

Of course you can’t imagine that. Neither can I. One Koreanist after another would have logged onto Twitter to mock the offender and express support for the injured party. Hashtag TyrannyoftheSneak. A dozen examples of plagiarism-fabrication couplings would have sufficed to make Cornell University Press apologize for its negligence. A new edition? Don’t make me laugh.

Not that I don’t understand what it must be like for Korea scholars in the West. That listserv thread got one point across loud and clear: Those who mess with Tyranny must prepare for every unorthodoxy or oversight in their own writing to be treated as an outrage, a greater one even than the falsification of sources.

I’d be silent now too, if I had to deal with the same old-boy network every time I submitted a manuscript, interviewed for a job, or applied for a conference slot. But if I were over there, I would own up to my fear, or “own it” as the millennials say. I would not pretend that straddling the fence during an assault on basic academic standards is the morally right thing to do.

UPDATE (14 January 2017): HarperCollins Teaches Cornell University Press a Lesson in Publishing Ethics

As the New York Times reported on 10 January, HarperCollins decided to withdraw the digital edition of Monica Crowley’s What the (Bleep) Just Happened? (2012) only 3 days after CNN’s discovery of some 50 instances of plagiarism of passages in the book.

Two days later, as if to dispel hopes that it might follow HarperCollins’ example, Cornell University Press tweeted a link to Charles Armstrong’s blog post of 30 December 2016.

In this manner Cornell University Press tacitly confirmed that a) it considers Armstrong’s post an appropriate reply to critics of the plagiarism and source fabrication in Tyranny of the Weak (2013), and b) a new edition is to appear in a few months, with only 52 corrections.

The laconic tweet was the academic publisher’s first public response to the controversy since it broke some 120 days ago.

Until the new version of Tyranny comes out some time this spring, Cornell University Press will apparently continue advertising and selling the original version in all formats, complete with over 60 instances of plagiarism and over 60 attendant instances of citation of non-existent or irrelevant sources.

tyranny-of-the-weak_table-of-76-cases

UPDATE (25 February 2017): A Mystery is Solved

I used the word farcical too lightly a few updates ago. It wasn’t until I read Armstrong’s “North Korea and the Education of Desire” (2016) a few weeks ago that he literally made me laugh. A moment later I realized I’d found the answer to a question that had been puzzling me for months.

But Nietzsche was right in saying that once you figure things out, they become much less interesting. Barring some direct provocation that calls for my response and no one else’s, what follows will be my last update to this blog post. I would therefore like to offer a final summing-up before moving on to the revelatory article I just mentioned.

All scholars can be roughly divided into research-first types, for whom the networking side of academic life is a chore, and those extroverts who gravitate early towards committees and editorial boards, and soon become fixtures on the conference circuit. Naturally there are gradations between the poles, but it’s always easy to figure out which half of the spectrum someone belongs to. One of my lecturers at university never stopped talking about the AKSE conferences of European Koreanists: who had made what wonderful joke at the last one, which important point of order would be tabled at the next. It was as if the whole point of Korean Studies were to gain entry to this thrilling integration ritual, which I made a mental note to steer clear of.

To each his own. What cannot be denied is that the published output of the one camp is of a higher quality than that of the other. Nor can it be denied that — for equally obvious reasons — the networkers ascribe great value to harmony, and manage their conferences and journals with a view to keeping disputation to a minimum.

This is no big problem so long as the networkers’ influence is kept in check. The key thing is to prevent any one member of their camp from collecting so many editorships, chairmanships, board memberships, and other opportunities to affect careers that he becomes an “academic ward boss,” someone whom all researchers in the field must avoid offending.

Once that happens, he and his coterie will be spared from criticism even as the quality of their work declines. To preserve the status quo, they will favor each newcomer unlikely to throw their mediocrity into relief, while keeping everyone else down. Real research will be pushed to the margins.

I’m not just talking about Korean Studies, of course. To quote from Shirley Strum’s superb book on baboons, which I recommend to all young people contemplating a career in academia:

There are cliques in science as in any other facet of human endeavor. If you are part of the “in group,” even minor findings are discussed and integrated, eventually becoming part of the working knowledge in the field. If you are not part of the clique, you stand a good chance of being ignored. (Almost Human: A Journey Into the World of Baboons, New York, 1990, p. 163.)

Here’s a case in point. At the Woodrow Wilson Center in 2013, Charles K. Armstrong (a board member) heard his book praised as the first to deal with the North Korean famine of 1954-55. Neither he nor anyone else present felt the need to point out that Balázs Szalontai had garnered a fair amount of attention in 2005 for dealing with that famine — in a book published by the Woodrow Wilson Center.

When his panegyrist mentioned having recently referred to the famine in his own PhD thesis, Armstrong joked, “I didn’t steal it from there.” Fun all around; good times. But not so funny when you consider that the jester had lifted part of his discussion of the famine from Szalontai’s book, and pseudo-corroborated it with spurious East Bloc sources.

(Go to 51:45 in the WWC video, then see items 16-18 in Szalontai’s table: tyranny-of-the-weak_table-of-76-cases.)

When the research-first types allow this sort of thing to slide, things naturally get worse. Academic interaction ceases to be about the exchange of ideas and becomes a matter of mutual back-scratching: You invite me to your conference/book/university, and I’ll invite you to mine.

Soon professors who would be horrified to catch their students plagiarizing and inventing sources start to plead for understanding when their ward boss is caught doing it, and close off academic forums to discussion of the problem. I refer the incredulous, for the very last time, to that Korean Studies listserv thread from last September.

Fyodor Tertitskiy has just written a Daily NK article placing Tyranny in the context of a long pattern of misconduct. I can confirm that several of Armstrong’s works since 2005 do indeed contain instances of plagiarism and source fabrication. (Homage-citation should thus be done very carefully.)

The Columbia professor still managed to surprise me with his article “North Korea and the Education of Desire,” which appeared last year in Alf Lüdtke’s book Everyday Life in Mass Dictatorship (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2016).

So uncannily familiar did the very first paragraph seem to me that I typed a random sentence into Google. Then another, and another. Within minutes I found that 90% of the chapter consists of pages mouse-clicked together — verbatim and sans acknowledgment — from Armstrong’s earlier books, primarily The North Korean Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2004), and Tyranny of the Weak (Cornell University Press, 2013).

The side-by-side excerpting below (successive, if you’re reading on your phone) is just long enough to show I’m not making this up. I wouldn’t want to violate Cornell’s copyrights; they’ve been through enough already.

Brown text = duplicated material.

The North Korean Revolution (2004), 157 & 139

The one year plan for ‘National Economic Rehabilitation and Development’ was adopted on February 19, 1947….Kim Il Sung announced that only under a single state plan ‘can the economy be restored and developed really quickly, and the people’s standard of living be raised.’ The 1947 plan called for a 92 percent growth in industrial production over the previous year, concentrating on construction, steel, coal, chemicals, power, and transportation, especially railroads. As US intelligence reports noted, North Korea’s state economic planning followed the Soviet model, but also had its precursors in the state capitalism of the Japanese Government-General. Along with Soviet advisors, the main architects of the 1947 plan were Kim Kwanjin, a lecturer at Keijo Imperial University who came north in September 1945 and became advisor to the Planning Department, and Yi Munhan, who had studied economics in Japan and headed the Department of Industry…. Japanese technical experts were retained as advisors in state-run industries. As in the early years of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, economic development was pursued with the tactics and terminology of war, including ‘campaigns’, ‘mobilisation’ and ‘assault movements’.

“North Korea and the Education of Desire” (2016), 168-169

The first of two one-year plans for ‘National Economic Rehabilitation and Development’ was adopted in February 1947. Kim Il Sung announced that only under a single state plan ‘can the economy be restored and developed really quickly, and the people’s standard of living be raised.’ The plan called for a 92 per cent growth in industrial production over the previous year, concentrating on construction, steel, coal, chemicals, power and transportation, especially railroads. As US intelligence reports noted, North Korea’s state economic planning followed the Soviet model, but also had its precursors in the state capitalism of the Japanese Government General. The main architects of the 1947 plan were Kim Kwanjin, a lecturer at Keijo Imperial University who came north in September 1945 and became advisor to the Planning Department, and Yi Munhan, who had studied economics in Japan and headed the Department of Industry. Several hundred Japanese technical experts were also retained as advisors in state-run industries. As in the early years of the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republic of China, economic development was pursued with the tactics and terminology of war, including ‘campaigns’, ‘mobilisation’ and ‘assault movements’.

 

Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World (2013), 63-64

Despite North Korea’s attempts to move toward self-sufficiency — or at least the production of its own industrial necessities — as quickly as possible, post-war rehabilitation in the DPRK was overwhelmingly dependent on aid from abroad, and from the Soviet Union in particular. In 1955 Moscow agreed to transfer technology to North Korea virtually for free. Between 1956 and 1958 alone the USSR gave North Korea grants and credits in the range of 300 million rubles, and by 1959 the total amount of Soviet aid may have been as high as 2.8 billion rubles, or $690 million (USD) at then-current exchange rates. According to contemporary Soviet sources, by the end of the Five-Year Plan in 1960, Soviet aid accounted for 40 per cent of North Korea’s electricity generation, 53 per cent of coke production, 51 per cent of cast iron, 22 per cent of steel, 45 per cent of reinforced concrete blocks and 65 per cent of cotton fabric. Thousands of North Koreans received technical training in the USSR and Eastern Europe and over 10,000 North Korean students were enrolled in universities and colleges in Soviet-bloc countries during the reconstruction period. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — this dependence, the DPRK leadership was bitterly divided over North Korea’s economic relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1950s. Between 1956 and 1958, Kim Il Sung and his group opposed integration into an international division of labor led by the USSR, in which North Korea would exchange its primary products for manufactured goods from the European socialist countries. Kim’s opponents argued against excessive self-reliance, and called for less emphasis on heavy industry and more on light industry and consumer goods. These arguments over economic policy became embroiled in turn with power struggles among pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese, and Manchurian guerrilla factions with the DPRK ruling group, as well as the debate over collective leadership inspired by Khrushchev’s ‘de-Stalinisation’ in the USSR. In the end, Kim’s line of collectivization, nationalism, self-reliance and heavy-industry-first development won the day, and those who opposed him paid, in many cases, with their lives.

“North Korea and the Education of Desire” (2016), 171-172

Despite North Korea’s attempts to move toward self-sufficiency — or at least the production of its own industrial necessities — as quickly as possible, post-war rehabilitation in the DPRK was overwhelmingly dependent on aid from abroad, and from the Soviet Union in particular. In 1955 Moscow agreed to transfer technology to North Korea virtually for free. Between 1956 and 1958 alone the USSR gave North Korea grants and credits in the range of 300 million rubles, and by 1959 the total amount of Soviet aid may have been as high as 2.8 billion rubles, or $690 million (USD) at then-current exchange rates. According to contemporary Soviet sources, by the end of the Five-Year Plan in 1960, Soviet aid accounted for 40 per cent of North Korea’s electricity generation, 53 per cent of coke production, 51 per cent of cast iron, 22 per cent of steel, 45 per cent of reinforced concrete blocks and 65 per cent of cotton fabric. Thousands of North Koreans received technical training in the USSR and Eastern Europe and over 10,000 North Korean students were enrolled in universities and colleges in Soviet-bloc countries during the reconstruction period. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — this dependence, the DPRK leadership was bitterly divided over North Korea’s economic relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1950s. Between 1956 and 1958, Kim Il Sung and his group opposed integration into an international division of labor led by the USSR, in which North Korea would exchange its primary products for manufactured goods from the European socialist countries. Kim’s opponents argued against excessive self-reliance, and called for less emphasis on heavy industry and more on light industry and consumer goods. These arguments over economic policy became embroiled in turn with power struggles among pro-Soviet, pro-Chinese, and Manchurian guerrilla factions with the DPRK ruling group, as well as the debate over collective leadership inspired by Khrushchev’s ‘de-Stalinisation’ in the USSR. In the end, Kim’s line of collectivisation, nationalism, self-reliance and heavy-industry-first development won the day, and those who opposed him paid, in many cases, with their lives.

Tyranny is mentioned in the new book (as is the Fairbank Prize) only in Armstrong’s bio. I should add that the text in the Tyranny column above had already appeared in the book Korean Society in 2007, and in the Cold War History journal article “Fraternal Socialism” in 2005, so the new book marks the fourth virtually identical appearance of these pages.  

This stuff has been going on for ten years, in other words, though not always in such in-your-face fashion.

Armstrong’s chapter “US-North Korean Relations,” in The Future of US-Korean Relations: The Imbalance of Power, ed. James Feffer (Routledge, New York, 2006), 9-28, consists to at least 90% of material pasted verbatim and without acknowledgment from “US-North Korean Relations,” Asian Perspective (Vol. 28, No. 4, 2004), 13-37. But considering that the title was not changed, the lack of acknowledgment may well have been an innocent error.

Which reminds me to concede for the umpteenth time that we all make mistakes. I suspect few researchers who have been publishing for ten years have not at some point reused or superficially recycled a passage or two from one of their journal articles in a later book without proper acknowledgment.

But five of Armstrong’s other publications since 2005 consist to 30-40% of material taken verbatim and without acknowledgment from his earlier hard-covered work. We’re talking duplication from book to book, book to journal, even book to “working paper.”

Usually the unacknowledged, pre-published material takes up much or all of the main body. Think of it as the pre-owned wood sandwiched between the shiny new panels of Introduction and Conclusion.

I think we can do without five additional sets of excerpt-pairs, but here is the main bibliographical information, should anyone want to check.

  1. “Inter-Korean Relations in Historical Perspective,” International Journal of Unification Studies (Vol. 14, No. 2, 2005), 1-20, consists to at least 33% of material copied verbatim and without acknowledgment from “Inter-Korean Relations: A North Korean Perspective,” in Inter-Korean Relations: Problems and Prospects, ed. Samuel Kim (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004), 39-56. Compare 11-15 in the newer work with 46-50 in the older one.
  2. “Beyond the DMZ,” in Korean Society, ed. Charles Armstrong (Routledge, NY, 2007), 187-203, consists to at least 33% of material duplicated verbatim and without acknowledgment from The North Korean Revolution (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2004) and “Fraternal Socialism,” Cold War History (Vol. 5, No. 2, 2005), 161-187. Compare 190-197 in BTD with 72-73, 139-140 in NKR,  and 166-168 in FS.
  3. “Necessary Enemies,” Working Paper Series, US-Korea Institute at SAIS, September 2008, 3-21, consists to at least 33% of material taken verbatim and without acknowledgment from “US-North Korean Relations,” in The Future of US-Korean Relations: The Imbalance of Power, ed. James Feffer (Routledge, NY, 2006), 9-28, most of which was itself taken from the Asian Perspective article “US-North Korean Relations” (Vol. 28, No. 4, 2004), 13-37. Compare 11-16 of NE with 11-22 of USNKR.
  4. “North Korea’s South Korea Policy,” in Engagement with North Korea, ed. Sung Chull Kim, David C. Kang (SUNY Press, Albany, 2009), 226-241, consists to at least 33% of material taken verbatim and without acknowledgment from “Inter-Korean Relations: A North Korean Perspective,” in Inter-Korean Relations, ed. Samuel S. Kim (Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2004), 39-56. Compare 228-236 of the newer work with 43-50 in the older one.
  5. “Ideological Introversion and Regime Survival” in Why Communism Did Not Collapse, ed. Martin Dimitrov (Cambridge University Press, NY, 2013), 99-119, consists to at least 40% of material taken verbatim and without acknowledgment from Armstrong’s chapter “The Role and Influence of Ideology,” in North Korea in Transition, ed. Kyung-Ae Park & Scott Snyder (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2012), 3-18. Compare 99-117 of IIRS with 4-13 of TRII.

Before someone tries to trivialize this record of behavior, let me ask if any editors in Asian studies would knowingly accept a submission in which the middle third or more consisted of pages already published once (let alone twice) in hard covers.

I knew nothing of this aspect of Armstrong’s work until very recently. For years I had turned to him only for representative expressions of Western academia’s Juche myth. His two single-authored books satisfied most of my needs. I have to assume, however, that his penchant for self-plagiarism was an open secret among the many Pyongyang watchers and Koreanists who profess to consider him a must-cite, must-invite scholar of the first rank. Take, for example, those editors of the duplicate material. Had they been following his work when they asked him to contribute to their books? A no seems only slightly better than a yes.

If I’d read “North Korea and the Education of Desire” earlier, I wouldn’t have been so baffled by the apparent recklessness of what went on in Tyranny. Now I get it. An intelligent man doesn’t re-use whole pages from his latest book — a prize-winning book — in the hope that he won’t be found out. He does it in the empirical expectation that he won’t be called out. Evidently this mindset informed Tyranny itself.

CORRECTION (26 February 2017): In the original version of this update I referred to Armstrong as editor of the Journal of Korean Studies. It has since come to my attention that he is no longer an editor-in-chief, nor is he on the journal’s editorial board. I apologize for the error.

https://web.archive.org/web/20161220163904/http://jks.weai.columbia.edu/editorial-advisory-boards/
>> http://jks.weai.columbia.edu/editorial-advisory-boards/

UPDATE (1 July 2017): Armstrong Returns Fairbank Prize

On June 29, the American Historical Association announced that Charles Armstrong had responded to its questions about the citations in Tyranny of the Weak by deciding to return the Fairbank Prize it had awarded him in 2014.

UPDATE (3 July 2017): Table Goes From 76 to 90 Cases

The new table of “90 Cases of Plagiarism, Source Fabrication and Text-Citation Disconnects in Charles K. Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak”:

90 cases Tyranny of the Weak

UPDATE (5 July 2017): Inside Higher Ed Gets It Wrong

Inside Higher Ed has just reported on Armstrong’s return of the Fairbank Prize, as well as on an allegedly corrected edition of Tyranny of the Weak which, according to Armstrong, Cornell University Press will put out later this month.

Scott Jaschik, the editor of IHE, wrote the article himself, evidently with a view to maximum dullness. You’d never know you were reading about the biggest, weirdest case of source fabrication and plagiarism in the history of Asian Studies in the US.

I was particularly annoyed by the part about me. For one thing, it is far too long; more space should have been given to the main injured party, even if  — and this has much to do with how the case has been ignored — he isn’t American, isn’t one of us.

Worse, my position is grossly misrepresented.

B. R. Myers, an associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University, in South Korea, published a detailed analysis of the controversy in which he said some of the errors were indeed minor, adding, “Let him who has published an error-free first edition get worked up about them.” As examples, he cites some incorrect dates (incorrect by days) in some German documents cited.

The dates were incorrect by months, not days, but let that pass. (And I became a full professor last October.) The passage above conveys the completely wrong impression that Szalontai’s table contains several cases of innocent inaccuracies, which in my “analysis” of the “controversy” I have dismissed as minor.

My readers can scroll up and see what I really said in September 2016 — before there was any table or controversy — namely, that there were many apparently innocent errors in Tyranny of the Weak which I considered beneath discussion.

Those errors have never had anything to do with the controversy. Not one has ever been problematized by me, Szalontai or anyone else.

In that same blog post, I made clear that I regarded Armstrong’s every apparent instance of plagiarism, fabrication and source distortion as major. This was why I considered the presentation of only 3 such cases a sufficient explanation for my decision to revoke an earlier recommendation of the book.

Jaschik goes on:

But [Myers] wrote that, in other cases, the citations were for publications that did not relate to the material cited. For instance, he cites a footnote that relates to a reference to a writers’ congress that took place in North Korea. The footnote leads to a publication that makes no reference to this meeting, so a reader has no basis for knowing where the information came from, Myers writes. He cites several other such footnotes that, he says, do not relate to the material covered.

Note how Jaschik mentions the Writers’ Congress example while skipping the crux of it: that the material came from Szalontai. One is left to think that Armstrong merely failed to back up the information.

Note also: Myers writes, Myers cites, Myers says, as if it’s all about my interpretation of things. In fact the relevant textual material has been out there in the public domain for several months, enforcing the same conclusion on every open-minded reader who has gone through it. What does Jaschik think of all that cold, hard evidence? Is it too much to expect an editor of an education journal to exercise his own judgment?

Here’s where the fellow really overplays his hand:

In other cases, Myers argues, the material appears to come from others, who were not properly credited (and he includes Szalontai among them).

Includes Szalontai among them? And that in parentheses, to downplay it even further! As if I had not focused from the start on Armstrong’s extensive plagiarism of Szalontai, which dwarfs his liftings from all other scholars combined. (Of the 90 items in the new table, 79 reflect plagiarism of Szalontai. No one else was plagiarized more than once or twice.)

I am also said to have argued something I have never argued:

Myers repeatedly notes that, as a scholar, he has made mistakes in his own scholarly writing and had to correct them later. But he argues that Armstrong has not acknowledged the significance of some of the errors in his book, or the significance of having so many errors.

This makes it sound like I am faulting Armstrong for not publicly acknowledging the significance of his making the sort of errors I do! If I have linked plagiarized information to a fake source even once, let alone 55 times, it’s news to me.

To be fair, the IHE article links to my blog post as well as to Szalontai’s table. But how many readers will bother to click on them? Most will come away thinking that an especially mistake-prone Ivy Leaguer is in trouble because some of his not-quite-proper citations made a foreign historian feel slighted.

Like the over-diplomatic wording with which the AHA sought to downplay the first return of a Fairbank Prize in its almost 50-year history, Cornell University Press’ decision to rush out a “corrected” edition before all the fabrication-plagiarism couplings have been rooted out, and the continuing deafening silence from Columbia University itself, this Inside Higher Ed piece bolsters my hunch that a whitewash is in the cards.

Let me say it before Madonna Constantine does: What a difference an old-boy network makes!

Back by Popular Demand
B.R. Myers

Here is the post indignantly referred to on another site. I had withdrawn this and all other posts for the time being, because I knew that the old guard would respond by trying to deflect attention away from the issue at hand, and from textual excerpts that speak for themselves. My other postings will all be back too, don’t worry.

The South Korean left has hitherto tried to convey the impression to the West that there was no fifth column in South Korea at all. The South Korean right, for its part, refuses to show any understanding for why so many intelligent and good people chose to side with the DPRK against the Park and Chun dictatorships.

We foreigners have a special duty to get past both moldy Cold War-era narratives to the more nuanced truth. The older generation of American Korea scholars and Korea hands is just going to have to deal with this, I’m afraid. You can control discussion in the US, but not everywhere in the world.

To be clear: I am far from convinced that the North Koreans organized the event. But it must at least be acknowledged (as the South Korean courts have had to acknowledge) that there is good evidence for believing that North Korea had its agents in Gwangju as in every large South Korean city, and that they did not sit quietly on the sidelines that tragic May.

Note also that I urge a critical reading of Kim’s book. I have gone to the trouble of checking several of his fascinating citations of demonstrator testimony, and at least they match the text. (Nor do I see any evidence that he is trying to take credit for the scholarship of others.) I urge everyone to read the book, or learn Korean and read the book, before presuming to pass judgment on its content.- B.R. Myers, 16 September 2016.


Update:

Don Baker continues to lament that I do not observe the field’s fatwa like a good boy, and treat Kim’s book like the Satanic Verses. May I remind him that I recommended Tyranny of the Weak in 2013 despite being the only person in the field fundamentally opposed to the book’s thrust? Had I not found the very troubling problems I discussed in the posting below “Revoking a Recommendation,” I would still be recommending it.

Call me crazy, but I like to tell open-minded scholars of Korean history about books I’ve read that offer useful content. If I consider them sound from start to finish, I say so. If not, I urge people to read them critically. I did this with Kim’s book just as I did with Tyranny

A book that consists to at least 30% of unedited passages and even whole pages from primary materials (for the most part, in the first two volumes, eyewitness and veteran demonstrator testimony) can hardly be described as “totally concocted,” can it?

There is plenty of stuff in there, in the latter two volumes especially, that seems to me preposterous, like the martial-arts battle in the North Korean village described either in vol. 3 or 4. But much of what is said in the first two volumes, particularly by the demonstrators or veteran demonstrators themselves, is sound. And much of that runs counter to the more recent and hyperbolic myth-making.

Estella says in Great Expectations, “Moths and all sorts of ugly creatures hover around a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?” And could the good citizens of Gwangju help it if a few dozen North Koreans were hovering around them? What, were they supposed to check ID’s? Would the fact of a North Korean presence make their cause any less respectable, their grievances any less legitimate? Of course not.  Does the fact that there were some communists in the US civil rights movement tarnish its history?

What is at work here with Baker et al is the misguided notion that if any piece of information serves the other side, or conforms in any way with the military dictatorships’ own propaganda, it must be denied or swept under the rug. As has happened with the Soviet archival evidence that the DPRK funded the so-called reformist parties in the 1960 election campaigns, just as the right wing had fulminated at the time. Good luck finding that evidence mentioned in new South Korean books on those parties (or on the Minjok Ilbo).

The person really being libeled in this whole discussion is poor Kim Il Sung. By North Korean logic, he would have betrayed the revolution and the nation, and the content of all his own ROK-related speeches, had he not done everything he could to try to make the Gwangju uprising “go wide.” That was the southern part of the DPRK, as far as he was concerned. And in that famous speech in 1955, about the first half of which such an ill-informed fuss has been made, he said quite clearly that the most feasible way of getting the south back was by riding a southern revolution. 

I have too much respect for the man to believe he said to his anti-South apparatus, “I’ve been telling you for 20 years that when the next uprising comes, we’ve got to be ready to pounce and exploit it. Well, forget all that. If there are any of our men in Gwangju now, pull them out. Let those kids fight the puppet state on their own.”  What possible reason could a unification-obsessed nationalist have had to take such a line?

The writer of the book in question believes that the North instigated the uprising. Again: I am not convinced. (Nor, incidentally, are some of my most arch-conservative friends.) But a historian cannot dismiss sound information because there is unsound stuff in the textual vicinity, or a danger of someone else using the truth the wrong way.

I needn’t go into the issue of how different libel laws are here in the ROK. I just find it interesting, and unfortunately typical of our field, that Baker appears to be angrier about an unorthodox opinion than about any of the examples listed in the posting below “Revoking a Recommendation.” — B.R. Myers, 17 September 2016. 

Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party has called for a ban on “all cutting down or distortion” of the Gwangju uprising of May 1980, or the Gwangju Democratization Movement as it is routinely called. For “all cutting down or distortion” read: any mention of a possible North Korean role in the events. If the PP’s proposed law were to go into effect (a distinct possibility), offenders would be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison. And Ahn Cheol-soo considers himself the voice of centrist reason! So far there has apparently been no English-language reporting on the proposal, nor any complaint from the Western Korea scholars who recently protested the current ROK administration’s textbook policy.

The uprising of 1980 is one of those many issues in regard to which South Korean historians express themselves very differently depending on the level of knowledge of the people they are talking to. In the company of monolingual Western academics and journalists, they tend to dismiss all talk of a North Korean presence in Gwangju as absurd right-wing slander. In Korean-language discussion with their peers, on the other hand, they protest only against the right’s alleged overestimation of the North Koreans’ role. No one here seriously believes that Kim Il Sung would have refrained from sending at least some operatives to the scene. The fact that the Rodong Sinmun beat the South Korean media to certain key updates speaks for itself.

There is enough other evidence or testimony to back up the claim of DPRK involvement (including testimony from KPA veterans and other migrants) to prevent the use of the existing libel laws to muzzle discussion of it. Hence the perceived need for a new law that would put all heterodox talk of May 18th off limits.

The orthodox Western narrative of modern Korean history is by and large congruent with the South Korean progressivist narrative. American graduate students in search of a degree or an academic job should therefore stick to wide-eyed viewings of May 18th (Hwaryŏ han hyuga, 2007), the standard cinematic mythologization of the uprising. Naturally the film met with the great approval of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which presented the director with a prize.

But those with the luxury to remain open-minded should engage in a critical reading of Kim Tae-ryŏng’s four-volume book May 18th as History (Yŏksa-ro-sŏ-ŭi 5.18, Seoul, 2013). The first two volumes are the best, relying as they do on the demonstrators’ own written and spoken testimony, which runs counter to much of the current myth-making. As can be said of all books, this one could have benefited from some more editing and tightening up; three volumes would have made the author’s case more effectively. All the same, much of Kim Tae-ryŏng’s criticism of the orthodox account of Gwangju (to which even most conservatives now pay lip service) seems unanswerable. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the whole story of the South Korean opposition.