A Roundtable Review of Charles Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 (updated)

By | October 03, 2013 | No Comments

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Sino-NK’s second official roundtable review covers Columbia University professor Charles Armstrong’s latest book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992.

The Sino-NK editorial team wishes to clarify that the reviews in this roundtable were written several years before accusations of plagiarism, now proven, against the author of the book, Charles Armstrong.

In light of the outcome of an inquiry into Armstrong’s conduct by Columbia University, it has been suggested that we ought to delete the roundtable and the accompanying response by Armstrong. That would certainly be a clear demonstration of our desire to follow some in “revoking a recommendation.” But it would also be irresponsible and perhaps even a little confusing; simply deleting the past doesn’t correct it. It is one thing to critically distance ourselves from the content of our reviews and quite another to erase our back catalogue completely. The written record must stand, no matter what it contains.

Instead, let us take this opportunity to belatedly encourage anyone seeking insight on North Korea’s foreign relations during the latter decades of the short 20th century to consult instead less celebrated but uncorrupted sources, most notably those of Balázs Salontai, who is the primary victim of Armstrong’s reprehensible conduct over a period of several years. — The Editors

In 1847, French politician Alphonse de Lamartine said, “History teaches everything, including the future.” Charles K. Armstrong, a professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, certainly takes this quote to heart in his new book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992. By analyzing North Korea’s history, the observer can come to a better prediction of what the future may hold for North Korea.

Created upon a myth of national liberation and fending off the American imperialist aggression, North Korea’s leaders, Kim Il-sung chief among them, have used history to form a national mindset and a standard discourse upon which the state can rely upon in times of need. Fearing a “reappearance” of Japanese militarism, fending off “another” American invasion, or “returning” to the prosperity of 1960s, the North Koreans understand the present in terms of the past. History may be the most vital prism through which to view North Korea today.

Armstrong presents a jargon-less, captivating discussion of North Korea’s foreign relations since 1950. The wide variety and the multi-lingual sources that Armstrong uses demonstrates the hurdles that historians of North Korea face and the ways in which they can overcome barriers to writing good historical narratives. Archives in North Korea are closed to just about everyone (including the average North Korean citizen) and the defector community in the South (a wealth of knowledge on North Korea’s present issues) cannot speak to, for, or about the history of North Korea’s foreign relations. Thus, Armstrong turns to archival sources from former communist nations (specifically East Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland). The author also takes advantage of the online database of materials and diplomatic wires compiled by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) and the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP). The myriad of sources in the book presents a new benchmark for other scholars of North Korea.

Above all, Armstrong fills a void in North Korean studies by writing a history of North Korea’s foreign relations and helping combat a la history the long-held view of the DPRK as a “hermit kingdom.” The truth of the matter is that no country of similar size and population has had as much success in captivating and frustrating, sometimes simultaneously, the attention of diplomats and international policymakers. Tyranny of the Weak shows the reader how North Korean leaders not only lead their country through the collapse of the socialist bloc relatively unharmed but, despite the material shortcomings, proved themselves extremely adept at manipulating and sometimes blackmailing the world’s super powers to stay afloat. These diplomatic skills were honed during the Cold War, the period under scrutiny in this book. To understand the North Korea of today, examining its history is invaluable and so is reading Charles Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak. — Benjamin R. Young, Sino-NK Contributor and Roundtable Editor

A Roundtable Review of Charles Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1990

by Sino-NK

Armstrong, Charles. Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. Cornell University Press: New York, 2013. 328 pp. ISBN: 0801450829.


Fog over rice paddies in the North Hamgyong Province | Image: Benjamin R. Young

Fog over the #ArmstrongRoundtable

by Christopher Green

Fogology, like Armstrong’s own “Tyranny of the Weak,” is a rhetorical conception that explains what it takes to win in the business of politics from a position of relative weakness. It is a practical conception of state approach, useful in characterizing the actions of the North Korean government throughout its history.

Kim Il-sung had Fog in his heart from an early age. The leader of the quintessential “Guerilla Dynasty,” he learned the business of statecraft in the hills of Manchuria, rarely visiting local towns. As Adrian Buzo put it in his classic tract of the same name:

Isolation shaped [Kim Il-sung]’s intellect by limiting his exposure to outside ideas and molding the ways in which he conceptualized and dealt with practical problems. Guerrilla life instilled in him the habits of self-reliance, perseverance and unremitting struggle… he also came to possess the deep conviction that his experience of people and politics in the guerrilla movement held true for people and politics everywhere.

Ergo, Fog was born and raised in Kim. But, of course, partisan charismatic rule is also at the center of the inherited legacy of state, and Kim Jong-il asserted Fog most famously. In 1994, “The Great General” gathered a number of key cadres together and praised them for their efforts to glorify the Party. However, Kim cautioned, “That is only fine for the domestic audience.” Internationally, “Chosun must be wrapped in a fog.”

There are many reasons why it might be to North Korea’s advantage for the international community to be unable to understand how and by what principles the state is being run.

North Korea is economically weaker by an order of magnitude than all the other states around it. Fogology is among the few effective defenses when threatened with humiliation by a neighbor that is not only economically stronger, but also increasingly, to appropriate a phrase used frequently in discourse south of the 38th parallel, “in line with international standards.” Without Fogology, then, there could be no “tyranny of the weak.”

What does Fog look like? Armstrong explains, noting how North Korean outreach efforts have usually been little more than strategic Fog. Most either ended up distorted by political imperatives or historically revised in the pursuit of a coherent legitimating narrative.

For example, to those who would criticize the South Korean side for not embracing Kim Il-sung’s “confederation” idea, here’s former Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov:


Similarly, and much to the chagrin of many in East Germany (albeit not Erich Honecker, who remained Kim’s friend to the end), no sooner had East Germans finished rebuilding North Korea’s east coast industrial city of Hamhung from the ground up after the Korean War than:


Armstrong recalls how the Koreans declared: “There have been two periods in the development of our country: the first period was in the last year of the war and in the following two years. Here the socialist brothers gave us a lot of help. We appreciate that. But in the period of the Five-Year Plan we have achieved everything through our own strength, without any foreign help” (p. 78).

What more extraordinary example of domestic Fog could there be than the deliberate airbrushing from history of not merely a person, but the assistance of an entire state in post-war reconstruction? And all for the sake of the national narrative! Foggy, indeed.


The Juche Tower in Pyongyang. | Image: yeowatzup

Armstrong’s Treatment of Juche: Blueprint or Smokescreen?

by Steven Denney

Many reviews of Tyranny will undoubtedly be very positive, and for good reason: Armstrong sketches together a readable and insightful historical narrative using, among other sources, recently declassified documents from China and newly translated diplomatic cables from the Eastern Bloc countries. It is with this in mind that I trend carefully into the realm of the specific and slightly nit-picky.

For the close reader, and especially Koreanists reading North Korea through a “charismatic lens,” Armstrong’s treatment of Juche, the “ideology” upon which the DPRK was allegedly founded and its precepts supposedly crucial to understanding the behavior of both the regime and the people, may somewhat disappoint. The study of ideology itself is methodologically tricky and requires those who choose it as a casual variable to clearly and specifically define it and how they are using it to explain x, y, or z. Armstrong defines it, but in no concrete terms. Instead of a clear definition, the close reader is left guessing what Juche actually means.

Terry Eagleton, in Ideology: An Introduction, lists 16 definitions of ideology “more of less at random”—an indication of its illusive meaning. They range from “the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life” and “ideas which help to legitimate a dominant political power” to “the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure.” That ideology has no well-established and accepted meaning makes it even more important that the author seeks a precise definition. Failure to do so undermines its use as a casual factor.

Juche could possibly fit any of the definitions of ideology cited above, but in Tyranny Armstrong uses it as a catch-all for explaining everything that falls under a “Korea-centered view of the world, as espoused by Kim Il-sung in his “’Juche’ speech” of December 1955 (p. 90). According to Armstrong, “the [Juche] speech became the touchstone of North Korea’s self-reliance policy in all areas of life, including economic development, diplomacy, military affairs, and cultural production” (p. 90, emphasis added). Thus, it appears, Armstrong sees Juche as a sort of blueprint for the North Korean state, economy, and society (see, esp., Ch. 3). This certainly makes Juche easy to use, but renders it questionable as an independent variable—“self-reliance,” as it is often translated, has about as much explanatory value as American exceptionalism. Giovanni Sartori, has lamented ideology’s loss of “heuristic validity” due to overuse. “Ideology [is]… a concept deprived of all heuristic validity, let alone testability, by having been stretched to a point of meaninglessness.” In other words, a catch-all ideology carries the methodological danger of explaining everything in general but nothing in particular.

Sartori may have gone too far in finding the concept of ideology nearly “meaningless.” Ideology in general, and Juche in particular, certainly explain something. As Armstrong contends, Juche is “the guiding principle of North Korea…” (p. 6). And this is seemingly confirmed by its wide use by North Koreans themselves. But Sartori’s underlying point is a valid one: without pinning ideology to a specific and methodologically airtight definition, an author runs the risk of being overly vague or portraying ideology as something it is not. On this point, the North Koreans are as guilty as Armstrong—what is, for example, “Juche sports?” Perhaps Brian Myers was right when he argued that Juche is nothing but “smokescreen?”

Communism is rising on planet Earth, may soon spread to Outer Space| Image: Political Cartoons of Irvin Dugan

Communism is rising on planet Earth, may soon spread to Outer Space! | Image: Political Cartoons of Irvin Dugan

“Die for a Tie:” The Korean War

by Adam Cathcart

The Soviets may have placed Kim Il-sung upon the proverbial throne in North Korea in 1945 and midwived the birth of the DPRK in 1948, but it was the Korean War, ironically, that cemented Kim’s control and sway over the state. The war also made Kim unique among the socialist stable of regional communist small powers, none of whom else could rise at least visually with the stature of a Chairman Mao. Just as the war raised China’s prestige in the socialist world, the same was true for the North Koreans, particularly as regarded by the countries and leaders of the Eastern Bloc, not least of which were the East Germans. Without a doubt, the war was not begun by Kim Il-sung with such a goal in mind, but it was one of the many unintended consequences spawned by the Korean War, not all of which bode poorly for the Kim family power base.

In treating this indispensable anchor point for North Korea’s history, Armstrong’s treatment of the war in his text does not disappoint. While Bruce Cumings’ 2010 text The Korean War etches clearly and deeply the impact of aerial bombing of DPRK, Armstrong’s archival spelunkings are quite different from the University of Chicago professor, and so are the interpretive elements that make this work unique.

Among other things, for the first time in a Western history, we have the North’s name for the conflict explained plainly: It is the effort to liberate the South, not accepting the broadening of the war (p. 14). The contextualization of pre-emption is another thing which Armstrong does particularly well.

The Japanese equivalent is the Manchurian Incident; it does not take into account the broadening of the conflict, nor does it recognize that the goal of liberation was dead, totally, by April 1951. The morbid GI phrase, rescued by David Halberstam, “die for a tie, ” was no less true for the North Koreans after that point, and the liberation would be every bit as Chinese as it was Korean.

From the North Korean point of view, the Korean War liberation had become a protracted war against the United States, but their leader, obsessed with speed and quick results, had yet to study Maoism sufficiently to see it that way (In 1963, Kim would admit that it was “a protracted struggle” against the Yankees that would last, at most another 20 years before his vision of 1950, the promise upon which half of his legitimacy is still staked, would come true).

While Armstrong also takes an arguably benign view of the North Korean occupation of the South, his work needs to be taken particularly seriously because of the scholar’s deep prior work on North Korean systems of governance and control in the North in the five years prior to the Korean War.

The construction of North Korean cities, such as Pyongyang, was an international effort by the Socialist Bloc after the Korean War| Image: Benjamin R. Young

The construction of North Korean cities, such as Pyongyang, was an international effort by the Socialist Bloc after the Korean War| Image: Benjamin R. Young

Foreign Cityscapes Built at Pyongyang Speed

by Darcie Draudt

Leveraging its geopolitical importance to allied big brothers to receive aid, North Korea has had the tendency to later lacquer city development with characteristic rhetoric of self-sufficiency. As Armstrong aptly notes, “the DPRK never successfully moved from an economy of war mobilization to a more relaxed form of economic development, and was still approaching economic problems with the language and tactics of warfare half a century later” (pp. 69-70); such tactic was certainly underlying the “Pyongyang Speed” of urban development projects that embedded socialism into city structures and infrastructures.

While such analysis is not new, what this book offers is evidence of the symbolic physical parallels between the Korean cities and cities elsewhere in Eurasia. Drawing from North Korean, Soviet, and German archival materials, Armstrong connects some new dots of exchanges between DPRK officials and Soviet bloc brethren, which highlights the contrariness between the reality and the rhetoric of the cityscapes and development.

Pyongyang and Hamhung in particularly benefited from Soviet technicians, East German urban planners, and manpower from China, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania (p. 70). The industrial city of Hamhung was ostensibly selected by Kim Il-sung himself to receive aid from East Germany (GDR) in 1954. The GDR was more than a pocketbook for the nascent DPRK; for example, citing a 1958 letter from planner Konrad Püschel, Amstrong indicates that the German planner modeled Hamhung’s main thoroughfare, Kim Il-sung Street, on East Berlin’s Stalinallee and based the central square on Alexanderplatz (p. 77).

As Armstrong points out, by necessity for its survival Pyongyang has continuously sought but rarely credited foreign aid or influence. All of this has interesting implications for Armstrong’s central question of the book as a whole: how does a nation so seemingly weak—continuously seeking foreign aid since its founding while so at odds with the post-Cold War international system—continue claim itself as being an insular unit?

Since the nation’s founding, foreign residents in North Korea have been segregated from North Korean citizens; it would be interesting to explore more how the Soviet- or German-inspired city elements affected foreigners living in the cities. The reviewer is also interested in the cityscapes’ impact on North Korean contemporaries of the Pyongyang Speed development. The parallels between the rapid development of North Korean cityscapes and those of other mid-century socialist countries as laid out by Armstrong raises interesting questions that warrant further exploration both within and outside the realm of international relations.

armstrong cover

The front cover to Armstrong’s latest book shows “solidarity” between the DPRK and “non-first world” countries, including the third. | Image: Sherri Ter Molen

North Korea in the Third World

by Benjamin R. Young

Andrei Lankov said in his recent book The Real North Korea, “If Nodong Sinmun [the organ of the Korean Workers’ Party] of the 1970s was to be believed, perusing the works of Kim Il-sung was a favorite pastime of many an African villager.” In Tyranny of the Weak, Armstrong posits why North Korea suddenly focused their diplomatic efforts on the Third World, chiefly Africa. Assisted by many fraternal socialist nations, the DPRK was literally resurrected from the ashes. Armstrong suggests that the socialist brotherhood that helped to redevelop North Korea after the Korean War was acknowledged by its leadership and thus their efforts to help rapidly develop the nations of Africa could be seen as returning the favor.

Also during this period, the North Korean model looked quite favorable to many recently decolonized African nations. North Korea’s economy was moderately successful and its independent stance in international affairs appealed to African independence fighters. Not to mention, North Korea offered military assistance to African nations for very little in return.

Armstrong focuses on Ethiopia and its connections with the North Korean state. Based upon East German archival material and interviews with former Ethiopian Workers’ Party officials and professors, Armstrong looks at the ways in which North Koreans helped to rebuild Ethiopia. Armstrong states, “Just as the Soviets helped to rebuild Pyongyang and the East Germans Hamhung, so the North Koreans helped reconstruct Addis Ababa as a ‘socialist’ city” (p. 196). The addition of Ethiopian archival material would have added an extra layer of complexity and furthered an already interesting facet of North Korea’s Third World diplomacy.

However, it seems unlikely that the North Koreans were as benevolent as Armstrong suggests. In exchange for assisting the postcolonial development of Third World nations, the North Korean leaders wanted votes in the United Nations that supported the North’s position for reunification. Africa, the site of many new nations in the 1960s, was thus ripe for North-South Korean competition. North Korea’s Third World diplomacy eventually backfired. North Korea never gained recognition as the true Korean state and their support of Third World development contributed to the North’s economic downfall in the late 1970s and 1980s. In fact, Bradley K. Martin recalls former Pyongyang elite and defector, Kang Myong-do, as saying that “excessive aid to Third World countries had caused an actual worsening of North Korea’s already serious economic problems.”

Socialism in the DPRK: betrayed? | Image: Gilad Rom

Socialism in the DPRK: betrayed? | Image: Gilad Rom

The Betrayal of Socialism and the DPRK

by Brian Gleason

Armstrong demonstrates that between 1985-1992, Pyongyang was increasingly unable to leverage its strategic position between Moscow and Beijing or use its ideological affinities with other socialist/communist states to achieve its goals. Soviet support under Gorbachev was initially strong, but Soviet-DPRK perspectives quickly began to diverge. Gorbachev criticized Kim Il-sung’s “vehement opposition” to cross recognition of the two Koreas, reprimanded Kim for the failure of the North Korean economy and the misappropriation of Soviet aid, and refused Pyongyang’s requests for new military assistance after 1988. China’s economic modernization also led to a divergence with the DPRK. In 1985, China’s indirect trade with South Korea exceeded its trade with North Korea for the first time, and the South was actually being touted as “an inspiration for China’s modernization program,” a huge embarrassment for Pyongyang (p. 252).

Wary of these troubling developments in Beijing and Moscow, Armstrong portrays a North Korean leadership that tried, unsuccessfully, to isolate the South from other socialist states. Pyongyang’s humiliating failure to co-host the 1988 Seoul Olympics was quickly exacerbated when the vast majority of its socialist allies ignored its pleas to boycott the Summer Games. When Hungary announced that it would establish diplomatic relations with Seoul (effective in February 1989), the North Korean media fumed that it was a “betrayal of socialism” (p. 268). Numerous other socialist countries would “betray socialism” in the following years by normalizing relations with Seoul, including China and the Soviet Union, who began to strengthen their own ties in 1989, meaning “North Korea could no longer play off Moscow and Beijing against each other” (p. 276).

In the aftermath of North Korea’s failures in the late 1980s, Armstrong elucidates how North Korea felt compelled to refine its ideology and embrace former foes in the early 1990s. The collapse of communism and betrayal of socialism led Pyongyang to coin the phrase “our-style socialism” and to become “militarized as never before” (p. 279). Ultimately, Pyongyang had to begrudgingly pursue relations with its worst enemies–the “imperialists” in the US and Japan, and the “puppet” to the South.

The Bad Apple by Gregory Pence, published by Daily NK on May 18, 2012 | Image: Daily NK

The Bad Apple by Gregory Pence, published by Daily NK on May 18, 2012 | Image: Daily NK

Summing It Up: Pro-North Sentiment in the ROK

by Peter Ward

Relations between the two Korean states have been colored by fear, mistrust, and a great deal of nationalist wishful thinking for the last 60 years.

Relations between the states post-1956 are covered comprehensively. Armstrong not only captures much of the North Korean leadership’s self-delusions about South Korea–and its “downtrodden masses”–but also the motivations that undergirded brief thaws in relations between the two sides in the early 1960s and 1970s. The North Korean leadership seemingly believed that a revolution would one day result in unification, hence the attempts to assassinate former presidents Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, as well as the attempts to set up pro-North Korean front organizations in the South. With the benefit of hindsight it seems all too easy to write-off such ideas as the self-aggrandizing delusions of a megalomaniac. Armstrong, however, offers a far more nuanced picture; after all, the 1960s and 1970s were a time when US power and the power of the capitalist world was by no means secure, or sacrosanct. As Armstrong notes, in the course of the Vietnam War, the limits of US power were ruthlessly exposed and this clearly must have affected perceptions of South Korea in Pyongyang.

It also seems to be another excellent example of stove piping. Nobody dare tell the leader that his interpretation of isolated protests, or reading groups in South Korea was wrong, and that South Korea clearly was not–from the 1950s to 1990s–a place ripe for pro-North Korean forces to come to power. Notwithstanding some elements (mainly students and radical intellectuals) of the South Korean society having sympathy for North Korean ideology and sometimes it leadership. One wonders if Kim Il-sung ever realized that South Korea would not succumb to revolution.

Related to the latter, a curious aspect of relations between North and South is the emergence of the 386 generation. This group was in their 30s in the 1990s, went to university in the 1980s, and was born in the 1960s. At university in the 1980s, many of them became firm believers in the Juche Idea and North Korean-style socialism. Armstrong portrays this phenomenon as a transient historical aberration that largely disappeared after South Korea’s democratization. In other words: most of these students matured ideologically. What he does not say is pro-North Korean sentiments remain a part of the fringe left, epitomized in the now arrested Lee Seok-ki. The radical left in South Korea continues to work with more Liberal, mainstream political parties, and it continues to espouse its own version of Kim Il-sung ‘s unification policy.

The book suffers from some weakness, too. One such weakness is an excessive American focus. In the Epilogue, Armstrong argues against US neoconservative desire for regime-change in Pyongyang. The conclusion, rather than reflecting on mistakes in American policy, would have been more interesting had Armstrong told us what the history of North Korean foreign policy can tell us about its future. Given the current state of the region, North Korea’s difficult relationship with its “ally” in China, and frequent changes in policy in Seoul and Washington, this is a subject that deserved more attention in Armstrong’s book than it got.

No Comments

  1. The reviewers here have taken all of the essential pieces (or chapters) of the book apart, but I don’t think any one put everything back together, leaving some questions unanswered: what is the book’s overarching argument? More importantly, do you buy it?

  2. The downside to a roundtable is, indeed, that some things are necessarily cut off. In my longer review, Chuck, I (and I emphasize I–I don’t speak for the collective here) found the overarching argument relatively straightforward, clearly presented, and well defended. But, then again, the notion that North Korea has adroitly exploited its position at the cost of larger powers has been known for some time. It isn’t the thesis, per se, that makes Armstrong’s book good–it’s what he says to defend it, and where he goes to get the information to do so. It’s not the arc of the book I enjoyed, but the facts that lie beneath.

    There is his Epilogue, though. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It falls outside the remit Armstrong sets for himself in the introduction. It suddenly becomes less about explaining North Korea’s behavior, and more about lampooning the GW Bush administration. Seems un-historian, in a way. The kind of thing best left to pundits. You’re an historian, what do you think?

  3. Thanks, Steve.

    It would seem to me that North Korea’s ability to manipulate other powers wavered sharply beginning in the 1970s, if not earlier. Certainly the country survived the Sino-Soviet split, which is an achievement on its own, but I don’t see its foreign policy as being as successfully manipulative in the eras of detente, Sino-American rapprochement, and the ‘second’ Cold War, or once economic growth in South Korea began to outpace growth in the North. In my reading, Armstrong’s text essentially demonstrates as much. He also shows the basic failure of North Korean foreign policy in other arenas, including its engagement with the first and third worlds. The DPRK was never as successful in the socialist bloc or elsewhere after post-war reconstruction ended.

    Nevertheless, as one of the first studies making extensive use of documents from North Korea’s former and current communist allies, Tyranny of the Weak is still a highly significant (and readable) narrative of North Korean foreign policy. I agree with you that the book is rich with detail and facts.

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