On Media Coverage of North Korea (Again) — B.R. Myers

Yeats’ characterization of the press as “the roar of the machine” may have been a bit harsh in his day. Now it seems too generous, implying as it does a force and vitality that have long since departed from our media. In The Survival of English Ian Robinson has a brilliant chapter about how, in the mid-20th century, the Times of London went from informing readers to trying to entertain them. Our own newspapers chose the same road, for the same commercial reasons.

The ongoing shallowing has been obvious in coverage of North Korea. Compare John F. Burns’ account of a visit to Pyongyang in 1985, in which he showed a penetrating interest in ideological matters, to Motoko Rich’s flippant report (in a very different New York Times) of her recent trip to Panmunjom.

Compare Burns, for that matter, to Reuters’ James Pearson, who recently tweeted that the notion of a North Korean intention to unify the peninsula is “such a tired old 1990s meme.” You see what I’m up against. To the millennial journalist, the lack of click-baiting novelty is so black a mark against an argument as to obviate the need for refutation. Marx was on to something when he said our economic interests shape our thinking.

The irony is that the various explanations of North Korea’s behavior which the media have served up as self-evident fact for the past quarter-century — it wants an aid deal, security guarantees, nukes for nukes’ sake — are all far more timeworn and threadbare than the theory that it’s arming for unification. Which, by the way, was never less often invoked than in the 1990s.

In a recent book Pearson described or co-described Kim Jong-un’s North Korea as a place “where ideology no longer matters,” and most foreign correspondents seem to agree. Its ideology clearly doesn’t matter to them. To be fair: This results in part from the failed-communist model of the country which (itself a failure) has done so much to divert the world’s attention to inessentials. If you think the regime’s ostensible ideology is a self-reliant form of Confucian Marxism-Leninism, you will naturally search in vain for signs of it in North Korean life. You will then zoom in on reflections of that presumed ideology’s impotence: the black markets, the thriving trade in luxury goods. If you thought New Zealand was a Shia theocracy, you would regard the opening of every new bar in Auckland as a newsworthy Sign of Change.

One also encounters among journalists the assumption that ideological conviction induces a robot-like state incompatible with love, corruption, fun, natural speech and rational thinking. (Orwell has a lot to answer for; Pyongyang watchers can learn far more from Victor Klemperer.) The normalcy of most North Koreans’ lives is thus held up as further evidence that a once-dominant ideology has become “just propaganda,” mere aural and visual background noise. No doubt that’s what Otto Warmbier was led to think too.

But a conspicuous lack of interest in ideology now seems common to journalists around the world. It is itself ideologically motivated. The globalist must always place more importance on the things that people have in common.

Like an interest in celebrities. After the recent ICBM test I was emailed by two journalists (in different countries) familiar, or so they claimed, with my research. Did they want to know how the regime articulates its racial mission? No, of course not. They wanted the lowdown on Ri Chun-hee, the KCNA’s histrionic news announcer. Which is the sort of discussion of North Korea that I consider tired and old.


Restored below is a related posting I first put up on this blog in March 2016:

There must have been a last straw, but I forget what it was. Suffice to say that on New Year’s Day 2014, I decided to stop answering requests for comment in regard to North Korea. Over the next few months I sent out dozens of emails saying no, I would not be remarking on the latest weapons test. And no, I had nothing to say about the popularity of Choco Pies in Kaesong. And sorry, there was no good time to call me about Kim Jong Un’s health.

Interviews on topics of interest to me were fine, so long as the contents were broadcast or printed in full, a condition I was right in expecting most people to balk at. Although requests were turned down as politely as possible, I quickly earned the reputation, as I later learned, of “someone who bites the heads off journalists.” This bothered and still bothers me, since most journalists are very nice people, and enlightening to talk with if not always to read. Still, of the two resolutions I made that day (the other being to quit Oreos), this proved the easier one to keep.

Yet in October 2014 I fell off the wagon. The occasion was one of those surges of optimism with which the commentariat tends to greet Pyongyang’s every twitch of the olive branch. Let it be said in my defense that the general response to Hwang Pyong So’s surprise appearance at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon was especially annoying: A new era had dawned, or would dawn, if only President Park were big enough to abandon her hardline policy, etc, etc…. By the time a journalist asked me for comment, I was more than ready to offer it.

From experience I knew that only one sentence was likely to make it into print. If I did get a second one, someone else’s remark would be placed between the two, lest readers got bored. And I knew better than to mention ideology, or to differ with the prevailing model of a communist North Korea; journalists do not like to hear about theory. I was equally mindful of their habit of selecting from any longish answer of mine the one sentence they could have got from a hundred other sources.

What I ended up writing about Hwang Pyong So’s visit ran as follows:

This may well be just another North Korean rope-slackening, by which I mean an effort to lower tensions so that an already-planned provocation does not result in outright conflict.

The journalist responded by calling this “an interesting angle,” and “not one [he] had explored!”

Something about that exclamation mark made me suspect the story was going to run without my input. Sure enough. Still less surprised was I a few hours after that, when the North fired across the DMZ. Whereupon the journalist checked in again. Seeing as how my pessimism had been justified after all, did I want to update the earlier comment he had refrained from quoting?

I did not. Whatever few words I would have been allowed to say would in any case have immediately been balanced out, and then some, by more than one representative of the communis opinio. The episode reminded me why I had stopped talking to journalists in the first place.

You see, they want your bead to provide color and variety to the quote-necklace, but not to clash with it, for that would throw into relief the unhelpfulness and incoherence of this now ubiquitous style of non-reporting. Not that readers aren’t already tired of it. The North Korea buffs of my acquaintance deal with articles much as I do: they read the first paragraph for the hard facts, and then skim wearily through the ensuing fragments of opinions, groaning inwardly at this or that over-familiar name. (The two or three blandest Pyongyang watchers seem to talk to everyone.)

What most of us want, and not just in North Korea coverage, is less quoting and more real reporting, more analysis. At the very least, journalists should pick a source they judge more perceptive and credible than others, and give that person the opportunity to go into depth.

Contrary to a popular excuse, it’s not the editors’ fault. I have had little difficulty getting periodicals to publish op-ed pieces or even cover-articles on the very topics journalists steer so clear of. Nor can anyone claim that space constraints preclude substance, when there is ample room for the tritest and shallowest soundbites. A lot can be said in three sentences, so long as they are not by three different people.

Unfortunately, longer-form discussion with the media does not necessarily mean they will pay more attention to nuance and accuracy. In a recent interview I said enough to fill a two-page spread in a European weekly, only to find myself nut-shelled in the introductory remarks as one who regards North Korea as a fascist state. I have also been outsmarted (to put it politely) on a few occasions. After filming a chat in my office, a TV crew explained that my answers would be cut up into clips, and scattered over various segments as the news demanded. Then there was the radio interview I gave under the condition that I could focus on ideology. When everything was over, I was told that the non-ideological stuff around the edges was more likely to be actually broadcast.

Having statements taken out of context is not the only way in which one can be made to regret speaking to the press. A few years ago a young South Korean questioned me in perfect English, after explaining that someone else would render my answers into Korean. I took care to avoid pronouns, which, as I knew from experience, tend to cause misunderstandings in the translation process. The interview then appeared in English after all, making me look as if all those tautological Juche texts had finally gone to my head.

Surely nothing can go wrong with a recorded Q & A, broadcast in full? Think again. Audio interviews are now transferred to print by some sort of voice-misrecognition software, and posted online without so much as a read-through. As of 9 March 2016, therefore, I am on record as saying (along with various incoherent and wrongly punctuated things) that “the Korean word me-yung …. features prominently in North Korean propaganda.” I can now look forward to an entire journal article setting me straight.

The actual word I had referred to: nyŏn. As in “bitch,” but not sounding quite that bad to Korean ears.

North Korea, Nuclear Armament, and Unification — B.R. Myers

In a recent blog post I mentioned the Great Contradiction in North Korean Studies: the practice of playing up the DPRK’s bold and uncompromising nationalism while at the same time denying its commitment to unifying the nation. The front and back do not match, as Koreans say.

The Great Contradiction in South Korean Studies is the equally widespread practice of stressing the great inferiority of the ROK’s nationalist credentials to North Korea’s, while denying that any South Korean opposition force of note has ever regarded the North as the more legitimate state. (Claims to the contrary are dismissed as McCarthyist fabrications.)

Again, front and back do not match. If the South was such a horrible place for so long, and the North to all outward appearances so much better, why should many South Koreans not have looked up to Kim Il Sung? It’s odd how some of the most North-apologetic Westerners are scandalized by any historical imputation of pro-North tendencies to the South Korean left.

Outright loyalty to Pyongyang is not the force it was here during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Juche Thought Movement reached the peak of its influence on campuses and in intellectual circles. But the fact that so many prominent and apparently unrepentant veterans of that movement now sit in the Moon Jae-in administration reminds us that the ideological difference between the two Koreas is not as clear-cut as Westerners assume.

The last frontier of the Cold War? Nonsense. The DMZ does not divide the last bastion of communism from a liberal democracy; it divides a radical nationalist state from a moderate nationalist one. The ideological gap between northern radicals and southern moderates remains a sizeable one, but has never been narrower. Nor should we forget the rule of ideological communities —  the whole peninsula being positable as such a community — that moderates always feel more sympathy for radicals than vice-versa. Enough to welcome a radical takeover? No. Enough to weaken their resistance to such a takeover? Yes.

That point is vital to understanding why North Korea regards the US military presence as the main thing standing between it and a more or less bloodless unification of the peninsula. That point in turn is vital to understanding that the goal of the regime’s nuclear program — and of its development of long-range missiles in particular — is to force the withdrawal of American troops.

No one has harped on this point quite like I have in recent years (in a Newsweek cover story in 2013, in North Korea’s Juche Myth in 2015, in NK News last year, and so on), but Nicholas Eberstadt and Japan’s Hideshi Takesada, among others, were putting things much the same way years earlier. It took the events of 2010 to make me realize how softline even the South Korean right was, which in turn made me understand that the subjugation of a post-alliance ROK was a goal realistic enough for Pyongyang to be arming for.

The regime has itself long defined unification as the end goal of its military-first policy. Now it does so not only in inner-track, but even in export propaganda, as (according to an NK News report) it did in an Uriminzokkiri piece a few weeks ago:

The current South Korean government has no need to fear or feel unnecessary repulsion about our nuclear weapon. It is a means for securing peaceful unification and the survival of the race (minjok).

South Korean Pyongyang watchers of a conservative bent, who join me in taking the North’s ideology seriously — as opposed to calling it a “reactive” or “survivalist” state, i.e., one without a long-term ideological vision — have been saying for decades that it’s out to unify the nation.

Unfortunately the Western press rarely calls on these experts, despite their being by far the best informed on nuclear and security issues in the narrow (more technical) sense. This has partly to do with the former’s own pro-Sunshine leanings and partly with the latter’s inability to speak English as well as the wealthier, US-educated academics of the Gangnam left. This neglect of their expertise is especially lamentable in view of the fact that they include many defectors from the North.

For a long time there, I seemed to be the only Anglophone Koreanist who kept bringing up unification when discussing the North’s motives. It did no good that I could see. The Western press kept on referring to the North’s arms program as a mere effort to maximize its defenses, or to secure an aid package, or to bring about the normalization of Pyongyang-Washington relations, or simply to survive, to “muddle through.”

Things are finally starting to change. With every new missile launch or nuclear test, a few more people seem to realize that the North is arming too urgently, and at too great a risk to its own security, for such benign explanations to keep making sense. As a result more journalists than usual have been asking me to elaborate on my published views. In February 2017, Slate printed an interview with me. In April Reuters War College interviewed me for a podcast, the almaengi of which was as follows:

Those who treat [George W. Bush’s] “axis of evil” remark and the bombing of Libya as watershed traumas in the North Korean psyche are really lampooning their own narrative, because if a regime has spent 50 or 60 years defying, humiliating and threatening a trigger-happy superpower like the United States, and the greatest shocks it has been dealt in return have been a rude line in a speech and an attack on a completely different country, its safety clearly does not depend on [its] developing a new kind of weapon. Its conventional artillery must have been protecting it very well indeed. The US was never stronger, North Korea never weaker than in 1994, yet even then the fear of an artillery attack on Seoul prevented an air-strike on Yongbyeon. You can put it another way and say that the very success of the nuclear program, the fact that it has gone this far, proves that it was never necessary for North Korea’s security in the first place.  

So the question we have to ask ourselves in 2017 is: Why does North Korea risk its long-enjoyed security by developing long-range nukes? Why is it doing the one thing that might force America to attack, to accept even the likelihood of South Korean civilian casualties? The only plausible goal big enough to warrant the growing risk and expense is the goal North Korea has been pursuing from day one of its existence: the unification of the peninsula. More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.

On 1 May 2017 the Los Angeles Times’ Jonathan Kaiman put out an article, “Here’s What’s Driving North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” in which he discussed my interpretation of the North’s motives, and related relevant things he had just seen and heard on a visit to Pyongyang.

One mosaic on Pyongyang’s metro depicts Kim Il Sung as the sun, watching over a gleeful scene of reunification under the North Korean flag; another shows the North Korean proletariat, led by Kim, advancing against a backdrop of tanks, planes, and most prominently, flying missiles.

“We want Trump to withdraw the troops of U.S. Army from South Korea,” said Rim Daesong, 28, a North Korean official, as he stepped onto a train. “The U.S. government has to change its policies, in order that our country can reunify independently.”

In February, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called a successful ballistic missile test “a pride of Kim Il Sung’s nation [that] has instilled vitality into the glorious Kim Jong Un’s era,” adding that “getting firmer is the fellow countrymen’s conviction in the final victory of the cause of national reunification.”

On 2 May 2017, the very day after the LA Times piece, the Associated Press issued a story under the headline “US: NK’s nukes may be a strategy for taking over South Korea.”

Matt Pottinger, the Asia director on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, said there may be some truth to claims that the North wants a nuclear deterrent to protect its communist dictatorship. But Pottinger said the country’s robust conventional military has worked as a deterrent for decades.

Pottinger suggested other “disturbing” explanations for the North’s development of “an arsenal of the worst weapons in the world.”

“They have made no secret in conversations they have had with former American officials, for example, and others that they want to use these weapons as an instrument of blackmail to achieve other goals, even including perhaps coercive reunification of the Korean Peninsula one day,” Pottinger told a conference in Washington.

The North, he added, also wants to coerce the United States “to leave the peninsula and abandon our alliances.”

And on 20 June 2017 the former nuclear negotiator Christopher R. Hill put out an article entitled “North Korea’s Real Strategy”:

In fact, North Korea’s appetite for nuclear weapons is rooted more in aggression than pragmatism. North Korea seeks nothing less than to decouple the United States from its South Korean partner – a split that would enable the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on Kim’s terms. In other words, North Korea does not want only to defend itself; it wants to set the stage for an invasion of its own.

I feel safe in saying that this interpretation of North Korea’s motives has finally “arrived.” I predict more people will begin discussing the nuclear crisis in an inter-Korean context in the months ahead.

My fear is that the consensus will stop halfway to the truth, and the usual op-ed writing suspects will begin arguing a) that the North wants our troops out only because it fears a US attack, and b) that such a move need not diminish the South’s security, because we can bolster its defenses as we reduce our troops in stages, demanding a quid pro quo from Pyongyang each time, etc.

Let me forestall such talk by reminding everyone that North Korean propaganda has always hammered home the assertion that if American troops pull out, unification under the star flag will and must follow. This prediction has informed the entire military-first policy, and motivated the great sacrifices that have gone with it. A takeover would be all the more necessary in view of the fact that a South Korea sans foreign military presence would be the North’s equal even on nationalist terms, leaving the latter state with no more grounds on which to claim superior legitimacy. A withdrawal of American troops would therefore compel the North to attempt completion of the great racial mission, with or without a confederation as a brief intervening stage.

Apropos of Otto Warmbier — B.R. Myers

Local conservatives (under parasol to the left) set up a tent and flags on June 29, 2017 in front of Busan Station, in memory of Otto Warmbier. Photo (by B.R. Myers) taken on July 13, 2017.

When I give presentations on North Korean ideology it’s always the softliners or apologists who chuckle at my slides of wall posters, as if to say: How foolish to pay attention to that stuff! Come Q & A time, one of them can be counted on to pipe up with something like, “That’s just propaganda, the higher-ups don’t believe it themselves,” or “I meet with top officials in Pyongyang all the time, and believe me, they want to work with us.”

Many of the most egregious apologists make a point of mocking the excesses of the North’s official culture. I have encountered two so far — one in print, one in the flesh — who have talked of the uncontrollable laughing fit they suffered while touring a site sacred to the personality cult. They seem to think this proves that their critical faculty is as developed as anyone else’s.

It does not. On the contrary: To be an apologist for North Korea, you have to treat its ideology as a bit of a joke. If you take the personality cult seriously, you cannot fail to see the impossibility of the North’s ever reconciling itself to a South that ignores it. And if you take the bellicose, racist and sexist propaganda seriously, you cannot at the same time reassure yourself that this is a communist or “reactive” or “survivalist” state; or that it is arming out of mere fear of the US; or that it will behave if we only appease it enough.

Least of all can you take its ideology seriously and still believe that by traveling to the country, you are helping to subvert the locals’ worldview. To grasp the official culture is to understand how perfectly the humble, wreath-laying foreigner fits into it.

All agencies operating tours in North Korea preach an extremely apologetic line in regard to the country, both on their websites and during the tours themselves. Whether they really believe it or only pretend to do so is beside the point.

Naturally they want their charges to show proper respect for the personality cult, if only in public. What they laugh off is what Jacques Ellul called agitation propaganda: the kind that vilifies Americans as a degenerate, vicious race, say, or that promises “final victory” (unification) in the near future. One tour operator tried to tell me — on a visit to Seoul — that anti-Americanism is not much of a force in North Korean culture!

Now, it is certainly not as relentless as the we-love-our-state integration propaganda, but it does not need to be, human nature being what it is. The brevity of the “Two-Minutes Hate” shows how well Orwell understood man’s need for an enemy. In any case, the most bloodthirsty North Korean propaganda is kept out of sight and earshot of tourists, for obvious reasons.

An operator of another tour agency, as I know from his former charges, likes to dismiss my talk of North Korea’s racism on the grounds that one or two of the American soldiers who fled there have locally born wives. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that these really are ethnic Korean women of respectable sŏngbun. The Third Reich refrained from breaking up or interning hundreds of “inter-racial” couples, the diarist Victor Klemperer and his wife — he a Jew, she an “Aryan” — being only the most famous example. I could adduce comparable trivia from apartheid South Africa; for example, Taiwanese enjoyed honorary Caucasian status. None of this even lends nuance to the racist big picture, let alone contradicts it. Far-right states tend to be less thorough or systematic than far-left ones, although even the latter have their vagaries.

I cannot in good conscience call for a ban on American travel to North Korea, having gone there three times myself. But tour operators should tell young people the truth up front, before they have paid for anything, that this is a far-right regime, the race-based ideology of which is to be taken very seriously indeed; and that it cuts Americans a little slack only if they behave like tributaries. Tourists must always remember that an American caught breaking the law in North Korea is punished for something greater than the infraction itself. He is punished for having entered the country on false pretenses, in the guise of a racially anomalous pilgrim, only to reveal himself as an all too typical Yankee, another “two-legged jackal” intent on harming the race.

On the Recent Spate of
“Why North Korea Hates
America” Articles — B.R. Myers
(Updated 1 June 2017)

In Seoul a few years ago a young European tried to persuade me that North Korea’s tiny front parties — the Social Democratic Party, and so on — constituted a legitimate political opposition. The encounter stuck in my mind only because it took me back to the 1980s. So common before the famine, that sort of naif has since become almost extinct in Pyongyang watching circles.

The dictionary, however, defines apologetics as any defense of something or someone against criticism. (Apologia Pro Vita Sua means a defense of one’s life, not an apology for it.) I would assert that criticism must be widespread for the word to make sense; it would be odd to call someone an apologist for Nelson Mandela.

We shouldn’t stop using the label apologist simply because those labeled don’t like it, but they have a right to expect it not to do the work of counter-argument. There is nothing inherently bad about defending a country against widespread criticism.

While few Western observers still consider the North the better Korea, most academics and a lot of journalists remain intent on arguing that the regime is not as bad as all that, and deserves to be treated more leniently. The two main assertions of post-famine apologism are as follows:

First: Although North Korea may have failed on the economic and human rights fronts, it is no less legitimate a state than the South. Founded by an anti-Japanese hero, who practiced and preached an ideology that boils down to putting Korea first, it has always done things its own way, in line with the nationalist aspirations of its people, and for that it deserves our respect.

Second: The North Koreans develop nuclear weapons only to protect themselves from an unprovoked American attack. Yes, the regime tried to conquer the South once, but it learned its lesson, and has since come to terms with the division of the peninsula. Its more recent provocations should therefore be seen only as expressions of insecurity and fear, efforts to gain some sort of security guarantee from the US.

The first assertion plays up North Korea’s uncompromising nationalism, because only by applying nationalist standards can one say anything good about the regime. But the second assertion denatures its nationalism into mere statism, because only by doing so can one pretend that it has no designs on the South.

In recent years Pyongyang watchers have even taken to describing North Korea as a “reactive” state, rendered virtually ideology-free by the spread of capitalism, yet still responding excitably to stimuli from Washington. Call it the behaviorist school of international relations. At most conferences or lectures on the nuclear crisis no mention is made of the regime’s domestic propaganda. What the North Koreans say to each other is thought to be much less important than what they say to Westerners.  There is as much racial arrogance to this mindset as naivety.

These days I keep coming across articles (here and here, for example) which argue that the North Koreans hate America primarily for having bombed them during the war. We’re to believe this was the great Ur-Stimulus the regime has been reacting to ever since. Lest we draw logical and unapologetic inferences, the hatred is described not as a thirst for revenge, but as a purely defensive aggrievement, “a collective sense of anxiety and fear.”

What we are dealing with here is not an empirical, primary-materials-based effort to understand the North Koreans’ worldview, but rather mere extrapolation from Western common sense, which is a very different mental exercise. As I wrote in The Cleanest Race, the Yankees’ carpet-bombing campaign plays a smaller role in North Korean propaganda than foreigners tend to assume, because the implications of it are too damaging for the cult of the motherly-protective leader. While taking refuge from the B-29s in a rural hut, Han Sŏrya wrote what is still the country’s most famous anti-American tale. It deals with colonial-era missionaries.

One might well retort that collective trauma is collective trauma, regardless of the spin put on it. Researchers of “memory politics” know better. We need only look at the much lower level of anti-Americanism in Vietnam to realize that suffering incurred in wars does not necessarily dictate decades of animosity and fear between peoples. It’s what propaganda does with history — for contemporary political ends — that counts.

I do not want to deny the horrors of that all too indiscriminate bombing campaign. But anyone who does not realize that North Koreans hate America mainly for dividing the nation and keeping it divided has failed to understand their ideology. And their nuclear program.

UPDATE: 1 June 2017

When you write that X matters more than Y, you must always be ready for someone to charge you with thinking Y doesn’t matter at all. I see a few people in cyberspace pretending to believe that I think America’s bombing of the North was no big deal.

Well, this is me 14 years ago:

America should focus less on [Kim Jong Il’s] eccentricities and more on his ideology, especially since the anti-Americanism at its core is as heartfelt and popular as the anti-Americanism that led to 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Diplomacy cannot succeed until the Bush administration begins addressing the historical basis for this hatred.

A good start would be a public apology for the excesses of the American air campaign in the Korean War: the saturation bombing of North Korean cities, the use of napalm, the attacks on irrigation dams in order to cause flooding. (“The Obsessions of Kim Jong Il,” New York Times, 19 May 2003.)

Diplomacy cannot succeed until…? In my defense, I was then just starting to read my way back into North Korean materials after a post-doctoral interlude in the automotive industry.

In 2006 I was already writing:

The North Koreans’ race theory … actuates a blithe indifference to international law. A uniquely virtuous people has no reason to obey its moral inferiors, be they allies or enemies. China has now learned that despite decades of military and economic assistance it can draw on no residue of good will in dealing with Pyongyang.

Neither can the South Koreans, whom the North Koreans will revile for their ethnic treason no matter how much cash they pump northward. This utter imperviousness to gestures of friendship and conciliation bears obvious implications for the prospect of normal relations between North Korea and America. (“Kim Jong Il’s Suicide Watch,” New York Times, 12 October 2006)

And then in 2009 I wrote an op-ed piece called “North Korea Will Never Disarm.”

I still consider the carpet-bombing campaign a war crime  — I explicitly referred to it as such in The Cleanest Race (2010) — and believe an apology is in order. It should, however, be explicitly addressed to the North Korean people, not to a dictatorship that itself has hundreds of thousands of North Korean deaths to answer for.

Once again: As a radical nationalist state, North Korea hates the US first and foremost for dividing the nation and keeping it divided. And no, this hatred is not a mere matter of “anxiety and fear.” On the contrary, the declassified East Bloc archives repeatedly attest to foreigners’ surprise that the North Koreans, after all they had gone through, were not afraid to risk another war.

The following is from a Hungarian embassy report in 1963, less than 10 years after the truce.

Czechoslovak Ambassador Comrade Moravec also told me that at the dinner party held by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim T’ae-hui […], Major General Ch’ang Chong-hwan, the [North] Korean representative on the Panmunjom Armistice Commission, approached him after dinner and put the following question to him: “What would you do if some day the enemy took one of the two rooms of your flat?”
Comrade Moravec replied,“Whatever happens, I would resort to methods that did not run the risk of destroying the whole building or the whole city […].”

Thereupon [Major] General Ch’ang threw a cigarette-box he had in his hand on the table, and left him standing.

Moon’s First Week — B.R. Myers

On May 12, his first Friday in office, Moon Jae-in ordered the scrapping of his predecessor’s plan to introduce state-issued history textbooks. According to the Blue House, it’s the president’s firm will that history education not be politicized. This news made me mutter words “out of use except in the vernacular,” as Joe Orton used to say.

Once every autumn I troop off with other Dongseo professors to a room filled with new high-school textbooks, in order to find fresh questions to ask student applicants to our department. Americans who keep hearing the South Korean education system praised would be shocked by how lightweight and picture-driven the social-science books are. The awfulness of the history ones defies description. It’s not so much that they lean pro-North and anti-ROK as that they do so in such preposterous fashion.

From a popular and very typical history textbook in my own collection (살아 있는 한국 근현대사 교과서, 2007, p.288), here’s a graph showing an 800% increase in the North’s industrial output from 1946 to 1957, during which time, the book falsely claims, the East Bloc cut off aid.

And that’s before the Ch’ŏllima movement kicked in. Puts the Miracle on the Han to shame, eh? Needless to say, the source for these statistics, cited underneath in tiny print, is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Government-issued history is fine so long it’s from that government.

And here’s the book’s only graph of economic growth under South Korea’s military dictatorships (p.291):

The teachers’ union has dinned this sort of stuff into kids’ heads for over twenty years now. The broadcast media’s version of history is scarcely less tendentious. One can no more de-mythologize the most ideologically-charged topics on a TV show than in a classroom. (I have already noted the “centrist” People’s Party’s effort to ban unorthodox discussion of the Gwangju uprising.) The internet portals like Naver and Daum do their bit too.

Not surprisingly, public opinion appears to have been influenced, if not as much as the dominant opinion-makers would like. (There have been other factors too of course.) At any rate, the mainstream is clearly to the nationalist-left of where the center used to be. The only man who came close to troubling Moon in the election campaign was Ahn Cheol-soo, who, right down to his IT hobbyhorse, was basically a throwback to Kim Dae Jung.

That still leaves a swelling elderly demographic that identifies with conservatism, but it’s of an increasingly watery sort. As the center-right writer and former politician Jeon Yeo-ok noted in a recent interview, there is no significant force here that could be considered conservative by Western standards. The party currently calling itself the Liberty Korea Party (to the right of which is no party of importance) has long been to the left of American Republicans. Although the foreign press was quick to swallow the KCNA’s description of President Lee Myung Bak as a hardliner, he gave about 75% as much aid to Pyongyang as Kim Dae Jung had given (not counting the money with which the 2000 summit was purchased). He would likely have exceeded that amount if not for the North’s two attacks in 2010.

Park Geun-hye, for her part, campaigned on a promise to “democratize the economy,” and the welfare system expanded steadily during her rule. While she drastically reduced aid to the North, she was far from a hardliner by normal standards, as could be seen from her administration’s response to the DMZ land mine incident in August 2015.

Since 2000 it has been clear that institutions once considered reactionary — the military, the National Intelligence Service, the so-called Cho-Joong-Dong triumvirate of newspapers — have been shifting leftward. I remember a Chosun Ilbo journalist in the Roh era telling me his paper had toned down criticism of the North so as not to irk the administration too much.

Yet to read foreign correspondents, many of whom seem to be relying for “background” on local millennial fixers, you would think that the entire spectrum here had moved in the opposite direction — that even advocates of inter-Korean reconciliation now understood the need for firmness with the North and a close alliance with the US, while the elderly flag-wavers had drifted off the chart, as it were, into quasi-fascist territory.

During the election campaign, vox-pop articles were written so as to suggest that whereas the young people who supported Moon had given informed thought to the issues, the old folk backing conservative candidates were nostalgic for dictatorship, unreasonably panicky about the North, and perhaps a bit senile.

A random example, from Bloomberg last month:

Jeon Byeong-kwan took to the streets late last year, joining millions of demonstrators seeking to oust former South Korean President Park Geun-hye and protest the nation’s “wealth cliques.” The 29-year-old event planner from Seoul sees Park’s downfall as progress toward a fairer society.

His grandmother, 82-year-old Bae Ok-nam, disagrees. She views it as a betrayal of her generation’s long struggle to rebuild a war-torn country that transformed it into Asia’s fourth-largest economy, an effort largely directed by Park’s father, the “great economic leader” Park Chung-hee.

“Did we really have to jail her? That broke my heart,” she said.

Wealth cliques? One might have expected a financial news network to mention that the wealth gap and the years of salary needed to buy an apartment both increased when the South Korean left first took the presidency in 1998, and continued increasing until 2008, when the conservatives took over. The proverbial “Gangnam leftist” is not the walking contradiction he’s made out to be; inflation is always good for the rich.

I don’t mean to imply that Moon is just another phony. Here in Busan’s Sasang District, which he represented in the National Assembly, even conservatives concede that he’s nothing if not down to earth. I had initially doubted all that stuff about his human rights work in Busan in the 1980s, assuming he’d just helped student radicals. Then I heard from an apolitical elderly Busanite how Moon’s pro bono advocacy in an apartment-contractual dispute had saved her family from being turned out on the street. “I would do anything for him,” she said.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I would have voted for him had I been able to. The issue of animal rights means much more to me than any political stuff, and the Minjoo Party is the only one here with any significant interest in it. (In my last post I referred to the former lawmaker Chang Hana’s efforts on this front.) If Moon carries through on his campaign rhetoric about animals, he will have done more than all US presidents combined. I bring this up only to emphasize that I am not rooting against the fellow. Far be it from me, as a guest in this country, to side publicly with any political party. My interest is in discussing an aspect of South Korean politics which, despite its great relevance to the US-ROK alliance and the ongoing nuclear crisis, gets little attention from the American press.

Last week the new president wasted no time in showing that the old flag-wavers had at least sussed him out better than foreign journalists had. Although his inaugural speech sounded like it had been written in ten minutes, his talk of creating an entirely new South Korea, and running the country “like a country,” was in line with the textbooks’ negation of ROK history. So too was his refusal to invest the moment with any heightened formal significance, any show of respect for the almost 30-year-old democratic tradition he inherits; it’s only the state, after all.

As far as the South Korean left is concerned, everything good in the country’s past came from the streets, from the masses. The indivisible popular will or minsim was the great force behind everything from Syngman Rhee’s ouster to the Sunshine Policy — left-wing presidents being but instruments of that will to the “revolution” that brought down Park Geun-hye. Hence Moon’s plan to move the presidential offices to Gwanghwamun, where the minsim can be megaphoned straight into the leader’s ear.

His first significant move as president was to make Im Jong-seok his chief of staff. The announcement was met with groans from conservatives who knew that name all too well. As a young man Im chaired the North-loyal National Association of Student Representatives. In 1989, at the age of 23, he arranged, in close coordination with the Kim Il Sung regime, a visit to North Korea by a South Korean female student. (Her anti-Yankee tirades gave the dictatorship a propaganda windfall at a crucial time.) After evading South Korean authorities for almost a year, Im Jong-seok served 3 and a half years of a 5-year sentence for violating the National Security Law.

Only a small minority of those who belonged to the so-called Juche Thought movement, which peaked in the early 1990s, have publicly renounced it. The rest have simply toned down their public statements and activities without expressly contradicting their younger selves. Im Jong-seok is in the latter camp, known here as the undonggwŏn.

To be fair, the US never saw much formal renunciation of support for Castro and the Viet Cong, yet few ex-hippies in American politics still think highly of them today. But people are much less easily disabused of radical nationalism than of far-left leanings. The difference in the economic performance of the two Koreas was and is beside the point to the radical nationalist, who simply blames sanctions and the scuttling of the Sunshine Policy for the North’s poverty. Nor has freedom of speech for anyone outside its own camp ever been high on the undonggwŏn’s list of values. There is therefore no reason to assume that Im now has a fundamentally different view of either North Korea or the United States. If he did he would have had the sense to say so upon taking office.

Moon deepened conservatives’ unease by choosing Suh Hoon to head the National Intelligence Service. For two years in the 1990s Suh lived north of the DMZ as head of the field office of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Office (KEDO), which was created as part of the Agreed Framework (1994). As an NIS official under the Kim Dae Jung administration, Suh returned several times to the North to lay the groundwork for the 2000 summit. The press touts him for his wonderful, alcohol-enhanced rapport with top North Korean officials. Let me just point out, if only to show how different our two countries are, that such a resume, mutatis mutandis, would be more likely to impede a security clearance in Washington than to help someone get the directorship of the CIA.

Suh says his goal is to help bring about a third North-South summit. The conservatives are right in finding this very odd indeed. It’s one thing for an intelligence official to assist in secret preparations for a summit, and quite another for the director of the agency to see himself as a sort of second Unification Minister. An NIS chief determined to bring off another summit is bound to turn a blind eye to the North’s anti-ROK operations in the meantime.

The Minjoo Party’s line is that there are no “North-obeying forces” here to speak of. It’s worth remembering, however, that after Germany’s unification, some 15,000 agents and informelle Mitarbeiter of the GDR were found to have operated in West Germany. Considering the far greater appeal that North Korea exerted on generations of South Koreans in their formative years, it must have more allies here than Honecker had west of the Elbe. North Korean defectors are going to need to be extra careful from now on.

Cho Kuk, a former law professor at Seoul National University, is Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs.  He has long been the first person most South Koreans think of when asked to name a “Gangnam leftist.” In a Youtube video posted years ago, an economic journalist wrily dismantled one of Cho’s indignant powerpoint lectures on the South Korean wealth gap. Apparently Cho had been teaching the country’s top students that while the rich got richer between 1999 and 2009, 80% of the South Korean population — the “lower 80%,” in Cho’s telling turn of phrase — saw its income shrink by about a third. Never mind where he got that information; only the most purblind ideologue could believe for a moment that such a devastating decline in income had taken place, and in the years after the IMF crisis at that. (If it had, as the journalist pointed out, there would have been an uprising.) And this is the man Moon chose for a position which, among other things, calls for special understanding of the lives and concerns of average people.

These appointments sent a message not only to the South Korean public but also to Pyongyang and Washington. Whether it was the message Moon intended to send will become clear very soon.

Electioneering in Busan
B.R. Myers

I suppose I’m the last Pyongyang watcher anyone would expect to see near the stage at a Moon Jae-in rally, shouting “To the left! To the left!” at the candidate from amidst a group of fervent supporters. The inflated orange garbage bag on the fellow’s head made the moment seem dreamlike even to me. For the first time in ages I thought of the bubble-crested tropical fish in the Bermuda Aquarium, where I spent many a childhood Saturday.

As so often in life, the explanation is mundane enough. Moon was in Busan on April 22 for a sort of homecoming rally, having lived here on and off for several years and represented my own Sasang district in the National Assembly. I was there with another professor to gauge the mood. The strange headgear? A Sajik Stadium ritual dear to Lotte Giants fans, who put their trash in the bags after the game. And we were shouting for Moon to turn towards us for the benefit of a man, right behind me, who seemed frantically anxious for a frontal photograph.

The audience was a young one on the whole, with an average age of about 32. It had been worn out early on by speeches from too many local dignitaries. Only for the blue-jacketed Minjoo big shots from Seoul did it come to life. Pak Young-sun went over especially well, despite having supported one of Moon’s now-vanquished Minjoo rivals. An elderly lady next to me said, “She will be president after Moon.”

Arriving to sustained cheers about an hour into the proceedings, the rather hoarse candidate read out a speech from a runway extending into the crowd.  The self-congratulatory question and answer format — He: “Who is going to create jobs?” Crowd: “Moon Jae-in!” — wore thin fast. Rather than look at his fleshly profile from a few yards away, a lot of people near the runway turned their backs on him to film the video screen at the back of the stage. I found myself wondering how many of them will actually vote on May 9.

At a dinner party in Seoul a few weeks ago, a Minjoo lawmaker assured me that although my favorite politician Chang Hana is no longer in the National Assembly, the party as a whole is following up on her efforts to legislate for the better treatment of animals. Sure enough, Moon spoke out only a few days later, with a dog in his arms, about the need to adopt stray animals and reduce the costs of veterinary care. Unfortunately he said nothing on this theme yesterday — or at least, nothing I could make out over the din of Busanite chatter around me. Had I been at the sound check I would have said, à la Roy Scheider: You’re going to need a bigger amp.

Intent on projecting firmness, Moon raised his voice whenever talking of anbo or security, but did little more than describe himself — or let the crowd identify him — as the candidate best prepared to solve the current “security crisis.” Sensibly enough, he treated Ahn Cheol-soo, the People’s Party candidate, as his only rival. (Ahn, who is also from Busan, had held a rally in the exact same spot the day before.) I heard only one or two digs at Hong Jun-pyo, the least obscure of the many candidates now fragmenting the conservative vote. Hong Quixote, as the press mocks him, has even less chance of victory now that a jaunty account of assisting an attempted date rape has been found in his long-unread memoirs. The nickname is no longer appropriate; Cervantes’ hero was nothing if not chivalrous.

Interestingly, neither Moon nor the many speakers who preceded him spoke of building trust with the North. This despite the appearance on stage of Kim Dae Jung’s son Kim Hong-gul, who did time in prison for much the same sort of thing that…. Well, as I said in another post: Corruption is bad here only when the other side engages in it.

Yet Moon’s visit to Busan came a few days after he refused to characterize North Korea as the South’s main enemy in a televised debate, and just one day after newspapers printed evidence backing up a not unconnected assertion that been first made last autumn. According to Song Min-soon, the foreign minister under President Roh Moo Hyun, Moon Jae-in (who was then Roh’s chief of staff) urged the government to consult with Pyongyang in 2007 before deciding how to vote on North Korea’s human rights record in the UN.

No one can deny that Pyongyang was contacted, or that South Korea then abstained from the vote. Last year Moon claimed to have forgotten what went on; this year he suddenly recalled having only recommended “monitoring” the North’s position. But now a government document has come to light that includes Roh’s regretful remark: “I shouldn’t have asked [Pyongyang], but Chief of Staff Moon told me to.”

At the rally yesterday, Moon gave his stock response to all allegations of this nature that have dogged him since his last campaign in 2012: The conservatives are engaging in saekkallon, the discussion of ideological “color” (especially redness), to divert public attention from their own failures. But the problem of his attitude to the North worries many South Koreans who were happy to see Park Geun-hye thrown out of power.

Unfortunately most of the Anglophone press lazily calls Moon a liberal, leaving readers to assume that “centrist” Ahn Cheol-soo must be somewhere between Hillary and Trump. In fact, in an American election campaign, both the Minjoo Party and the People’s Party would be posited well to the left of our Democrats. Both contain several politicians whose past statements in regard to North Korea or the relative legitimacy of the two Korean states would strike most US liberals as bizarre.

The Trump administration will have to begin talking with either Moon or Ahn on May 10. Whoever it turns out to be, intra-alliance conflict over North Korea is almost certain to flare up within months of his takeover. The Western media should start paying more attention to the ideological landscape of the peninsula as soon as possible.

On Kim Yong-gyu’s
“The Secret Teachings of Kim Il Sung”
B.R. Myers

In 1998 the former North Korean operative Kim Yong-gyu, who was then working at a research institute in South Korea, put out a 36-page paper entitled “Kim Il Sung’s Secret Teachings in Regard to Operations Against the South” (Kim Il-sŏng ŭi taenam kongjak kwallyŏn pimil kyosi).

The following year Kim Yong-gyu’s Silent War (Sori ŏmnŭn chŏnjaeng) appeared. A lightly fictionalized account of the business of recruiting South Koreans, escorting them back and forth to the North, and so on, the book is all the more credible for being, for the most part, a very dull and repetitive read. The author’s publisher chose not to advertise it at all, presumably for fear of annoying the Kim Dae Jung administration.

Frustrated and worried by the Sunshine-naivety of the time, Kim Yong-gyu allowed the conservative monthly Pukhan (North Korea) to make the Pimil kyosi known to a wider audience in October 2001. Japan’s Sankei serialized it in 2004.

If Kim Yong-gyu is to be believed, the Pimil kyosi consist of things Kim Il Sung said at different times and places in regard to anti-ROK activities. For the most part they deal with the recruitment of potentially useful South Koreans: what sort of people to sidle up to, and how best to go about it.

This is allegedly from a talk given in April 1974 to the relevant officials:

If you’re going down to south Korea nowadays and want to know the best place to infiltrate, the answer is the church. One can get into any churches without a resume or a letter of guarantee, and anyone can win people’s trust if he goes walking busily around with a bible at his side, making big donations.

Having won trust and ingratiated oneself in this way, one need only skillfully throw out some bait in order to gain hold of any number of priests and pastors. It all depends on how our operatives properly exploit the current conditions in south Korea.

On conservative networks like Channel A or TV Chosun, I occasionally hear panelists taking the Pimil kyosi at face value in connection with so-called “North-obeying” figures in various walks of South Korean life: “This is just what Kim Il Sung called for in his secret teachings.”

What first caught my eye were the (very few) parts related to nuclear weapons, because I have long argued that the ultimate goal of the current nuclear program is unification — which is not to say that the regime is planning a nuclear attack.

Kim Il Sung is alleged to have said in January 1968, before the party’s military committee:

When it comes to developing a nuclear missile, we do not lack the theory [i’ron, here in the sense of know-how]; the problem is the equipment, meaning the funds.

And in November that same year, in conversation with scientists in Hamhung:

We have no choice but to drive the Yankees out of south Korea. We have to prepare for war, under the understanding that someday we will certainly have to fight the US once again. What must be hurried more than anything is the acquisition of a means with which to strike American territory. You comrades must engage in active development as soon as possible, so that we can produce our own nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

And in April 1974, to government officials in Pyongyang:

There are various ways of making the Yankees disengage from south Korea. In the worst case, we can wage all-out war, but to prepare for such a time we need to acquire the means to strike American territory.

In the history of world wars [the world’s wars?] up to now, innumerable wars [sic] big and small have been waged, but there wasn’t one in which the Yankees were not involved, and because they were all fought elsewhere, not a single shell ever fell on American territory.

What would happen if a bomb were to fall on it? …. That’s why the Yankees are most afraid of our developing a long-range missile.

I gave the task of developing the No. 101 to the defense science institute for no other reason. If we conduct a test launch of the No. 101 before long, the Yankees’ attitude will change 180 degrees.

The ellipsis is in the Korean version by the way. That bit about wars, the first part of which may well have been misremembered or mistranscribed, reads:

지금까지 세계전쟁 역사에는 크고 작은 전쟁이 수없이 벌어져 왔지만 미국놈들이 개입되지 않은 전쟁이 없고, 그전쟁이 모두 다른 지역에서 벌어졌기 때문에 미국 본토에는 포탄 한발 떨어진 적이 없습니다.

The big question is whether Kim Yong-gyu’s account of the provenance of the kyosi can be believed, especially considering the timing of and apparent motivation for their publication. I can never understand why people who lied for a living should be considered unimpeachable sources of information the moment they switch sides. (This applies also to the statements of T’ae Yŏng-ho now being taken for gospel truth in some quarters.)

A former chief of ROK intelligence has been quoted as saying:

“Kim Il Sung’s ‘secret teachings’ are not put to paper but are instead conveyed orally” and “the content consists of teachings that anti-ROK operatives have in their heads when they come down, and then reveal during the ROK intelligence service’s interrogation process.” He said that “North Korea is ruled in accordance with the secret teachings. Kim Jong-il didn’t deviate an inch from them, and Kim Jong Un is the same.” (A former head of ROK intelligence, quoted in Monthly Chosun, January 2014, 198.)

I am tempted to content myself with that. But I can hardly fault Western historians for swallowing things like Kim’s alleged speeches from the 1930s, and then accept any old grist for my own mill.

The question of whether the man himself imparted these inner-track teachings (as I would prefer to call them) is both unanswerable and not very important. Many of Kim’s earliest “works” were known to have been either party reports that he put his name on, or the product of aides who, with his blessing, ordered and fleshed out his impromptu remarks. Since the second great burgeoning of the personality cult in 1967, Kim has often been quoted as saying things not contained in his collected works.

It’s possible that DPRK intelligence attributed these instructions to Kim only to keep operatives in the field from second-guessing their superiors.

There can be no doubting the ability of highly disciplined and intelligent people to commit dozens of pages of text to memory. What I find harder to believe is that the regime in Pyongyang would stuff operatives’ heads with so many rambling and often overlapping chunks of text, complete with inconsequential details of the time and venue of the various talks, instead of issuing only succinct, precise and operative-specific orders. If it were a matter of lending weight to the orders, DPRK intelligence could simply have quoted or faked some Leader statement about the importance of following them to the letter.

Surely the possibility of capture and torture would have further discouraged the inculcation of strings of instructions explicitly attributed to the leader himself. It all seems incompatible with the “need to know” principle. This goes especially for the missile stuff, which no field operative had any reason to memorize — or certainly no reason strong enough to outweigh the risk of the enemy’s learning about the DPRK’s ambitions.

Other factors, however, make me feel there is something to the Pimil kyosi. Both the tone and the practical intelligence on display throughout line up with the Kim Il Sung we encounter in East Bloc accounts — a very different Kim from the teller of windy Juche platitudes.  Also, the rough dates attached to the missile-related statements are at least in broad keeping with some of the things he said to allies between 1968 and 1980 about the need to drive the Americans out of the peninsula.

Numerous remarks in the Pimil kyosi seem to me far too critical of South Korean politics and society — too perceptively critical — to have been cooked up by Kim Yong-gyu or the pre-Sunshine ROK authorities purely for propaganda effect. There is talk of the rampant corruption in South Korean society, of the Park regime’s brutality and lack of legitimacy, even talk of Park’s communist past. And indeed, this content was not made widely known before the Kim Dae Jung era.

Perhaps it would be best if Korean-reading scholars conducted a philological examination of the complete text in cooperation with Cold War scholars who know the East Bloc archives. A big step toward establishing authenticity would be the discovery of very similar statements made by Kim Il Sung to foreign diplomats at the time in question. A step in the opposite direction would be finding clashes between the rough dates of the instructions and Kim Il Sung’s known whereabouts at home or abroad.

In the meantime, it’s enough to keep in mind that this source is taken seriously by a significant part of South Korea’s expert community. We don’t need to prove its authenticity in order to argue that the ultimate goal of North Korea’s nuclear program is unification and not mere security from US attack; there is no shortage of published inner-track propaganda that hammers home this very point. The unpleasant truth will force itself upon the outside world soon enough — at the latest when that nuclear program is complete, and the regime moves to the next stage of negotiating a grand bargain. This is almost certain to involve demands for the withdrawal of US troops.

Still the Unloved Republic
B.R. Myers

On a website called Sino-NK, Steven Denney, who in 2013 called South Korea a “nation that trusts the state,” has described an East Asia Institute study as “further evidence that South Korea is not the Unloved Republic.” Since his article makes no mention of the Choi scandal, I assume it was written quite a bit earlier than October 28, when it was posted.

The evidence adduced hardly justifies such a rosy conclusion. Apart from the fact that the EAI leans conservative, and thus has an incentive to constate a rise in patriotism under Saenuri rule, its studies have so far indicated that pride in Korea derives largely from such things as K-Pop’s standing overseas, the success of Korean athletes and exporters, and so on.

If we have learned anything from Trump’s victory, it’s that “expert” surveys should not keep us from drawing our own conclusions from what we see and hear around us every day. Has the Republic of Korea ever been more obviously unloved than in this year of “Hell Chosun”? Has the constitution ever been regarded by more South Koreans as an anti-democratic force, an obstacle in the way of the sŏngnan minsim, the Angry Popular Mood? If I may be allowed an anecdotal point: Never have so many of my students expressed a wish to emigrate after graduation.

Although Denney calls me a polemicist, his take on this matter is the contrarian one. The section of my published paper on “North Korea’s State Loyalty Advantage” (2011) in which I referred to South Korea as the “unloved republic” accords with a long-held consensus in political discussion here. Left and right agree that the ROK does not elicit as much loyalty from citizens as most other democratic states do.

That’s where their agreement ends, of course. The left sees the problem in the illegitimacy of a republic whose premature establishment cemented national division, and which compounded that sin by neglecting to “purge” former pro-Japanese elements. Any official efforts to counter the general lack of state spirit are vigorously opposed on the left as signs of state-chauvinism or kukkajuŭi. Hence the campaign against standardized history textbooks, a campaign which many Koreanists in the West (who are oh-so-quiet about the scandal in their own ranks) felt they had the moral authority to support with a petition.

On the South Korean right, on the other hand, the lack of patriotism (as opposed to nationalism) is chalked up to brainwashing by “North-obeying” (chongbuk) educators and journalists. In my opinion Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee deserve more of the blame; in the republic’s formative decades they let demonization of Kim Il Sung take the place of state-building. I like reminding conservatives that it was Roh Moo Hyun who inserted mention of the Taehan minguk into a pledge to the flag that had hitherto demanded loyalty only to the race and homeland. And it was under Lee Myung Bak that people had to start going to work on Constitution Day, meaning that the ROK no longer has a true republican holiday in the calendar.

When reading poll results about patriotism, one must keep in mind the vagueness of the name Taehan minguk. In English it is translated as Republic of Korea or South Korea, names which to us foreigners denote the state as a political entity distinct from its northern neighbor. To most people here, however, Taehan minguk conveys that sense only when used in contrastive proximity with the word Pukhan (North Korea).

Ask South Koreans when the Taehan minguk was established; more will answer “5000 years ago” than “in 1948,” because to them it is simply the full name for Hanguk, Korea, the homeland. That’s all it meant to most people who shouted those four syllables so proudly during the World Cup in 2002. (The North’s killing of six ROK sailors that same month was generally ignored.) The majority of South Korean elementary schoolchildren who recently said they would choose to be born again in the Taehan minguk explained their answer with reference either to its long history and beautiful traditions or to its climate and scenery. Only 23% of those who gave that answer did so “because it is a free and democratic state” (kukka). I suspect that’s more than would have given such an explanation ten years ago, but it’s still less than one in five (19.8%) of the total of children polled.

Use of the terms minjokchuŭi (nationalism) and minjok (nation) is also a complex affair. Despite its constant Japan-bashing and prioritization of ethnic grievance over state security, the South Korean left tends to use the word nationalism as a pejorative — especially in discussion of multiculturalism, of which it approves. Someone who is asked by a pollster whether he is prouder of the Taehan minguk or of the minjok therefore knows which answer is better, more progressive-sounding. In all likelihood he is not prouder of the republic than of his Koreanness. One should be wary of polls on this issue that were not conducted precisely and clearly.

Having learned nothing from the Arab Spring, Western media still take it for granted that peaceful street demonstrations must be liberal-democratic in inspiration. Journalists covering the current crisis in South Korea would do well to pay more attention (as Michael Breen has done) to the ochlocratic nature of much of the sloganeering: “the people are above the constitution,” and so on.

Americans saw Watergate as a threat to their republic. They countered by following constitutional and legal procedure to the letter. In Korea, many people appear unwilling to separate the political system from the wrongdoings of politicians. There has thus been a further deterioration of basic standards of civility in National Assembly hearings; indifference, in discussion of Park Geun-hye’s wrongdoing, to the distinction between the illegal and the inappropriate; and growing talk of the need to reverse decisions made by all branches of government during her presidency. That includes calls to overturn the convictions that put Lee Seok-ki and Han Myeong-suk in prison.

This is not to imply that Park’s die-hard supporters have any more state spirit than most of her detractors; if they did, they wouldn’t still think she has done nothing to warrant impeachment. No one who respects the  constitution and the rule of law would shrug off the charges against her the way these people do. As with the left’s defense of Han Myeong-suk, to say nothing of its beatification of Roh Moo Hyun, there is a general sense here that while corruption is always regrettable, it’s scandalous only when the other side is involved. A lot of state-building remains to be done.

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.)


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

>> 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.


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.