Author’s Response to Sino-NK Roundtable on Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992

By | November 25, 2013 | No Comments

Image: Sino-NK

Image: Sino-NK

For all the ink being spilled and pixels being pushed about North Korea on any given day, genuine investigations of the DPRK’s history and pre-history are precious few. The devoted and the new readers of English material about North Korea still need a more complete understanding both of the DPRK’s domestic politics and its foreign policy. Since receiving his PhD at the University of Chicago and taking up an important post at Columbia University, Charles Armstrong has been and remains a leading authoritative voice in the effort to investigate and clarify the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its interactions with the world.  We at Sino-NK were delighted to be among the first to review his new book (in roundtable format, with the assistance of Cornell University Press) and Dr. Armstrong was kind enough to continue the discourse and respond to our review. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief  

Author’s Response to Sino-NK Roundtable on Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950 – 1992

by Charles K. Armstrong

I would like to thank all the contributors to Sino-NK for their thoughtful comments on Tyranny of the Weak, which gave me much to consider. Such feedback is certainly encouraging for an author, suggesting that the fruits of his intellectual labor are reaching an audience that takes the work seriously. No book is without its flaws, of course, and I appreciate the critical comments as well as the praise–although I reserve the right to disagree with the former where appropriate!

As readers know, Tyranny of the Weak is the result of several years of research in the archives of North Korea’s present and former communist partners, focusing especially on East European and Russian documents, although I draw on the temporarily opened Chinese Foreign Ministry archives to some extent, as well as published material from South Korea, China, Russia, the United States, Japan, and of course North Korea. In addition to drawing on the invaluable collection of materials compiled and translated by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s North Korea International Documentation Project, I spent some months in the East German Foreign Ministry and Socialist Unity Party Archives in Berlin, and conducted archival research and interviews in Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Austria and Ethiopia.  Although others have utilized one or two of these sources for books and articles on North Korea, this has been the first book-length project to draw on such a wide range of sources in different countries and languages. The result, as I state in my introduction, is still a view from the outside, but precisely because of its wide-ranging source base this study gives us the most multi-faceted and possibly most reliable view of North Korea’s foreign relations we have achieved so far. Perhaps someday we will be able to work in the DPRK archives themselves, but at the moment that is a distant dream.

Let me go through each of the individual commentaries in turn. Christopher Green’s suggestive term “fogology” certainly describes the DPRK’s method in presenting itself to the world, but it seems to me “tyranny of the weak” better describes Pyongyang’s foreign policy achievement. I suggest that North Korea has been masterful at manipulating more powerful interlocutors to attain its goals, but part of North Korea’s weakness has been its own making – especially its economic weakness, which I have found to be much more serious, even the early years of North Korea’s supposed “economic miracle,” than many had assumed. Only recently has the world become aware that North Korea suffered a famine in 1955-56, the very moment when its post-war industrialization was taking off. Fogology indeed!

Steven Denny asks if Juche is “real,” or can be really described as an ideology. Despite the efforts of Hwang Jang-yop and others to systematize Juche philosophy, it has indeed been a vague and slippery concept. But “ideology” is our word, not theirs; Juche has sometimes been called a “philosophy” (철학; cheolhak) but more often simply a “thought” (사상; sasang). One might say Juche is a “state of mind,” to use the title of that documentary film:  not a specific set of principles or guidelines, but a standard against which actions are judged. In that sense Juche Thought is indeed comparable to “American Exceptionalism” in the US, a baseline of value rather than a well-defined ideology. Regarding Brian Myers’ description of Juche as a “smokescreen:” as in much of Myers’ work, he takes a reasonable point of critique and stretches it to the breaking point. What exactly is the “smokescreen” of Juche hiding? Kim Il-sung’s December 1955 “Juche speech” was an important moment in North Korea’s political development and foreign policy thinking, even if in retrospect rather than contemporaneously–as I point out, East Europeans clearly recognized this looking back from twenty years later, in the mid-1970s.

I appreciate Adam Cathcart’s note on my contribution to understanding the Korean War from Pyongyang’s point of view, although I differ somewhat with his suggestion that I take an overly benign view of the North Korean occupation of the South. I think the contemporary record shows that the initial North Korean occupation in the summer of 1950 was considerably less violent than the South Korean occupation of the North in the fall, but there was plenty of coercion involved in the North Korean occupation, and the KPA was much more violent during its post-Incheon retreat, as I try to make clear.

Darcie Draudt’s suggestion of looking more deeply into how Soviet- or German-inspired city elements affected foreigners living in those cities, as well the parallels between North Korea urban development and that of other contemporary “socialist” cities, is a fascinating challenge, and I hope others will take this up. There is much more to be learned about North Korea city-building and urban life, and a truly trans-Eurasian or even global comparative study of the socialist city has yet to be done. Similarly, Benjamin Young’s comments on my section on North Koreans in Africa point to the rich potential for further work on the subject, both in Ethiopia and elsewhere.  Zimbabwe, where North Korea military advisors and equipment were critical factors in Mugabe’s consolidation of power in the early 1980s, is an especially promising area of research. I hope, however, that I did not give the impression that North Korea aided African and other post-colonial countries purely out of generosity. Competition with South Korea for international recognition and UN votes was probably a more important factor than Third-World largesse. And as in the Soviet Union, aid to the Third World ended up a drain on North Korea’s already overburdened economy.

Brian Gleason criticizes my epilogue for focusing on the US-DPRK conflict of the post-Cold War decades, although I certainly don’t think the rest of the book can be accused of being excessively US-focused. There are a number of other present-day lessons that can be drawn from the history I describe in the book, and others will surely take them. However, my project began in the George W. Bush period when America’s “tyranny of the strong” looked to be provoking a disastrous head-on collision with the DPRK, and that danger is still very salient today.

Finally, Peter Ward draws attention to the pro-Pyongyang sentiments among South Korea’s “386 Generation,” which still has some adherents among what he calls the “fringe left” today. Having been a student at Yonsei University during the heady years of anti-government protest in the late 1980s, I can attest that those sentiments were very real and very powerful, often more bound up with criticism of South Korea and the US than serious examination of North Korea itself. It’s easy to look back on such ideas as pure delusion, like Kim Il-sung’s wishful thinking about South Korea’s imminent revolution, but in both cases historical circumstances made North Korea look more appealing and South Korea less stable than they appear now. Not everyone subscribed to those sentiments of course, but it’s much easier to judge mistakes in retrospect than to understand what it meant to be in the midst of that historical environment.  Understanding history may not prevent us from making new mistakes, but it should inhibit us from repeating the old ones. Sadly, the leaders of the DPRK seem not to have learned that lesson.

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