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.
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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