High-profile book on North Korea earns 52 corrections

The author of a high-profile book about the history of North Korea is issuing 52 corrections to the next edition, scheduled to appear this spring. The changes follow heavy criticism of the book, alleging it contained material not supported by the list of references.

Last month, author Charles Armstrong, a professor at Columbia University, announced on his website that he was issuing the changes after reviewing the book in detail, especially the footnotes. He writes:

That there are errors in the book I have no doubt; that the book was a sincere and vigorous attempt to construct a historical narrative drawing from a wide array of existing works of scholarship and primary sources, I also have no doubt. I also firmly believe that the errors did not cause serious damage to any scholarly field or to the validity of the book itself. Whether it is a convincing narrative is up to the reader to decide.

Tyranny of the Weak — which explores how North Korea survived the Cold War — covers a 42-year span of time, and took Armstrong 10 years to write. On his website, he explains the source of some of the errors:

My skills in Russian are the weakest among the languages I used to research Tyranny of the Weak, and in retrospect, this weakness contributed to some of the citation problems. In a number of cases, I examined the footnotes and bibliographies in secondary sources and tried to go directly to the sources cited, or find equivalent sources in collections to which I had access. The book’s narrative was constructed through multiple transfers of notes, some made by my research assistants and others done by myself. This too, in retrospect, may have resulted in some inaccuracies.

Armstrong addresses some of the points made by his most vocal critic, Balazs Szalontai of Korea University — who has claimed the book contains 76 issues, mostly plagiarism covered by unrelated or invalid sources. (Armstrong notes that 76 citations make up only 8% of the 1,000 or so footnotes in the book.) Szalontai told us:

Notably, Professor Armstrong’s post did not address the interrelated problems of source fabrication and plagiarism in any respect…During my examination of these sources, I have identified a minimum of 70 cases of plagiarism. I have also ascertained that a minimum of 43 archival files cited by the author do not exist at all.

Szalontai added that he asked the publisher if they intended to involve him in the correction process for Tyranny of the Weak, and was told no. 

Szalontai noted:

Thus I am in no way “satisfied,” nor can I regard these “corrections” as legitimate…

Armstrong told us that he disagrees with many of Szalontai’s allegations, including those that the book contains plagiarism:

As I have made clear, my errors do not involve plagiarism of Dr. Szalontai’s work or that of any other scholar.

Armstrong added that he wasn’t surprised to learn the publisher didn’t include Szalontai in the correction process:

It is highly unusual for another scholar to be involved in such a correction process, which is normally between the author and the publisher. That is the decision of Cornell University Press and I was not involved.

On his website, Armstrong concludes:

I appreciate the efforts that Szalontai and his collaborators have made to correct inaccuracies in my references in Russian, German, Chinese, and Korean. Having addressed these errors, I reaffirm Tyranny of the Weak as a solid work of scholarship whose arguments remain valid both in the historical record and in the way North Korea deals with the world even today. For those who find the book flawed, inaccurate, or insufficiently researched, the answer is simple: write a better book. I would look forward to reading it.

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3 thoughts on “High-profile book on North Korea earns 52 corrections”

  1. Apart from the fact that the simple omission or modification of the plagiarized and/or fabricated parts does not erase the original transgressions in a legal sense, it is necessary to point out that Professor Armstrong’s blog post evidently distorts what I actually wrote in my publicly accessible list and table. Readers are encouraged to check the following example:

    My list (Case 1):

    The cited document does exist; it is publicly accessible in NKIDP’s Digital Archives (in Kathryn Weathersby’s translation). (…) However, the file makes no reference to any Chinese promise to provide assistance to North Korea against the U.S. The words “sufficient assistance” (a direct quotation in Tyranny) appear in a wholly different
    context. (…) In sum, there is a partial discrepancy between the claimed and the actual content of the cited document. In contrast, the content of the cited document shows a strong positive correlation with the aforesaid part of Mansourov’s dissertation. Tyranny’s direct quotation of Mao’s words (the Americans “would not unleash a Third World War because of such a tiny piece of territory”) shows perceptible textual similarities both with Mansourov’s dissertation (the U.S. would not “start a global war for such a tiny piece of land as Korea”) and with Weathersby’s translation (“The Americans will not enter a third world war for such a small territory”). None of these translations is acknowledged in Tyranny, where the document is presented as the author’s own translation.

    Professor Armstrong’s blog:

    Szalontai makes a claim that the document cited in footnote 33 on p. 21, “Center for Korean Research, Shtykov to Vishinsky, 12 May 1950” does not exist. In fact this is a reference to a document in the Center for Korean Research collection mentioned above. These documents were brought from Moscow by Alexandre Mansourov, then a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, and filed in the Center for Korean Research. The problem is that I did not cite it by its usual reference, using the AVPRF system.

    As readers can see, Professor Armstrong’s response evidently sidesteps the actual problem I pointed out (plagiarism and distorted content), knocks down a straw man (for I never took issue with the citation form “Center for Korean Research”), and attributes words to me that I never uttered (“The cited document does exist, it is publicly accessible” versus “Szalontai makes a claim that the document … does not exist”). Judging from this case, one feels compelled to harbor strong doubts about the integrity of the “correction” process. In any case, the fact that Professor Armstrong intends to “correct” only 52 cases of the 76 cases hitherto exposed means that a minimum of 24 cases will remain “uncorrected.” That is, the “corrected” edition will effectively repeat the act of copyright violation.

  2. Armstrong and his publisher are both ducking the real issue here by presenting this as a matter of ‘technical errors’ in citation that require correction. The charge is much more serious than mere sloppiness, though that would be bad enough: even on Armstrong’s own admission there were 52 incorrect citations in the book, and yet he writes that ‘I also firmly believe that the errors did not cause serious damage to any scholarly field or to the validity of the book itself.’ I would say that a book whose argument was unaffected by the revelation that much of its source base was non-existent wasn’t worth reading – and certainly wasn’t worth a Fairbank Prize from the AHA and the (with hindsight deeply embarrassing) adulation it received from many scholars in the field.

    However the charge here is not just sloppiness, but plagiarism – namely that the 76 incorrect citations identified by Szalontai are in almost all cases linked to passages of text which have been lifted and paraphrased from his book and those of other scholars. To give one very clear example from Szalontai’s list: Armstrong cites a report from the Soviet ambassador to Pyongyang dated 15 September 1959 and supposedly held in the Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation. This document does not exist – it COULD NOT exist, because the Soviet ambassador was not in Pyongyang, but in Moscow on that date. However there is a report from the Hungarian ambassador in Pyongyang of that date, held in the Hungarian foreign ministry archives, which Szalontai cites in his book. The information in Armstrong’s book supposedly supported by the citation of this non-existent document bears a strong resemblance to that in Szalontai’s book at the point where it refers to the Hungarian document. The inference then is that Armstrong has paraphrased the relevant passage in Szalontai’s monograph, and simply substituted the details of an imaginary Russian document for those of Szalontai’s Hungarian document, using the same date. It is very hard to see how this can be accidental – I have worked extensively in Russian archives myself, and cannot imagine how it could have occurred unless it were deliberate. And Szalontai has a list of 76 cases, most of them just as suspicious as this one.

    Armstrong has not made any convincing defence to the charge of plagiarism. In his blog post he ignores it, and in the interview above merely issues a flat denial without evidence. He may be innocent, but clearly Columbia should be launching an investigation, which should have external members and take evidence from all those affected. Until that happens a cloud will continue to hang over Armstrong, his department, and his university

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