Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Criticism swirls around high-profile history book about North Korea

with 3 comments

80140100484410mAn award-winning account of North Korea during the Cold War has fallen under criticism, claiming the author included material not supported by the list of references.

One historian has uploaded a series of what he calls “noteworthy problems” with Tyranny of the Weak, winner of the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History in 2014. Balazs Szalontai of Korea University primarily accuses author Charles Armstrong of citing either irrelevant or non-existent sources to support his claims.

Armstrong, a professor at Columbia University, told us:

I am correcting errors as I find them. And they will be incorporated in the next printing of my book. But I continue to stand by my book, which is the product of my research.

He added that he appreciates the “pioneering work that Dr. Szalontai and others have done in this area,” and has no plans to retract any of his own:

There are areas which I think could be strengthened. But I don’t retract any of my findings, which I think are all supported.

The book was heavily vetted, Armstrong added:

The book was reviewed by two expert external reviewers before publication. In addition, before the book was published three years ago I shared the entire manuscript with one of the scholars who is currently critical of the book and is a renowned expert on the Russian sources on North Korea. At that time, this scholar did not find any problem with my use of sources, although he made a number of other comments which I incorporated in the final version of the book.

Szalontai told us:

I became aware of the book’s peculiar similarities with my own book as early as 2014. A preliminary comparative check of the two texts led to the discovery of over 50 cases when the author’s cited Russian and East German sources had the same dates and the same content as my own analogous documents. These coincidences were so extensive that even the occasional omissions in my text (such as a source whose date specified only the year and the month, but not the day) were exactly duplicated in Tyranny.

This led Szalontai to check the original references, he said:

In August 2016, I finally managed to complete the process of verification by visiting Woodrow Wilson Center, and checking the collection there to reconstruct the original archival locations (which were partly missing from the Seoul collection due to the librarians’ error). This way it could be fully verified that the vast majority of the Russian archival citations from 1957-60 were invalid, because the cited files could not be found either in the Seoul collection or in the (essentially identical) Wilson Center collection. In September 2016, Professor Myers submitted a request to the Berlin archives with regard to those German archival documents whose authenticity I questioned. This inquiry yielded a response that most of the files concerned could not be found. The few files that were located did not contain the information claimed by the author, or they contained only a part of it.

Armstrong told us he is not aware of any animosity between he and Szalontai which may have prompted this discussion:

I have, as far as I know, never offended him. I’ve known him for years, and appreciate the work he’s done. His book appears in my bibliography. I don’t understand why he would come after me this way.

The book has also been criticized by writer B.R. Myers on a blog for Sthele Press. The conversation between Armstrong and his critics has played out on a listserv for Korean studies, as Charles Kraus, a graduate student at George Washington University, notes on his blog. The discussion around Tyranny of the Weak has also been covered by NK News.

Armstrong noted that none of the errors he has discovered so far undermine he main conclusions of his book:

Not that I agree with all of the criticisms. But to the extent I can find them to be justified, I am correcting them. And so far I find nothing that affects the core arguments of the book.

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Written by Alison McCook

October 13th, 2016 at 9:30 am

  • Balazs Szalontai October 13, 2016 at 10:57 am

    I may add that the uploaded series of “noteworthy problems,” to which an article referred contains 34 cases. In the meantime, this list has been updated, and currently it includes 60 cases described in detail. The investigation is still in progress. The 60 cases can be found here:

  • imohacsi October 13, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    This is a very polite way of calling plagiarism…

  • B J Andrews October 15, 2016 at 12:19 am

    Having looked through the table of discrepancies and checked a good sample of them in both Armstrong’s _Tyranny_ and Szalontai’s _Kim Il Sung in the Krushchev Era_, I find Armstrong’s plaint above to be disingenuous and revolting. He says, “I have, as far as I know, never offended him [Szalontai]. I’ve known him for years, and appreciate the work he’s done. His book appears in my bibliography. I don’t understand why he would come after me this way.” Professor Szalontai is justifiably offended because his work has been appropriated without credit. Clearly the multiple instances of this are not just errors of oversight. Armstrong has gone to some lengths to give the appearance of having come to the same conclusions as Szalontai by citing other sources, some of which do not exist and others do not give remotely the information claimed by Armstrong. What makes it worse is that this plagiarism is committed by a named university professor at an Ivy-league university, taking advantage of a far less privileged scholar’s work. If we do not tolerate such behavior from our students, why is anyone making excuses for it from someone who should be a role model?

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