Corrections to Tyranny of the Weak

Since early this past fall, a group of people, including Dr. Balazs Szalontai, has circulated lists of problems with my book, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950 – 1992 (Cornell University Press, 2013), to a number of institutions and online forums. Dr. Szalontai never communicated his concerns or criticisms directly to me prior to these various posts on different blogs. Why direct communication, a common professional courtesy and practice in academia, was not the preferred form of expression remains a mystery. Szalontai currently claims there are problems with 76 citations, and he claims that these problems seriously undermine the book and cause great “damage” to the academic communities of Korean Studies, Cold War Studies, and Soviet Studies. These 76 citations amount to approximately 8% of the 1,000 or so footnotes in the book.

Since these allegations first arose, in September 2016, I have gone back to my book, and in particular the footnotes, to attempt to see where there are legitimate errors, deduce how these errors may have arisen, and try to correct them. Having thoroughly examined these allegations, I have submitted a total of 52 corrections to my editor at Cornell University Press, who has informed me that they will be included in the next printing of Tyranny of the Weak, which should be released in the spring of 2017. 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. I provide a brief background of the research and book preparation before I focus on my evaluation of my critics’ judgments.

Research process and scholarly background

This is a book that took ten years to research and write and covers a 42-year time span. It is not based on one body of documents alone but on several diverse archives in five languages. I worked with three research assistants, gathered books and primary sources in six countries, and conducted interviews on four continents. The result, as many readers and reviewers have pointed out, is a rich, multi-layered history of North Korean foreign relations from the Korean War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tyranny of the Weak proposes a novel way to understand how the DPRK has maneuvered through a changing and sometimes threatening international environment, and even survived the end of the Cold War against many predictions to the contrary. Along the way, I try to make some more general points about the ability of small states to survive and even benefit from the international system despite their relative weakness, a theme embedded in the title of the book. Therefore, I suggest that interested readers consider the book as a whole and not only the sections where errors have been alleged.

I do not know exactly what motivated my critics make their allegations, but it is clear that part of the problem is a difference in research methodology, indeed in the very understanding of how history is “done.” As I often tell my students, documents do not write history. Historians write history, with the aid of various primary and secondary sources. One poses a question, makes an initial foray into the material, develops a hypothesis, gathers more material, and constructs a narrative around a set of arguments. I have tried to make a coherent set of arguments based on a wide reading of various kinds of sources and referred to documents where they seemed particularly relevant. My ambition for Tyranny of the Weak was to do something that had never before been done: draw from a broad range of existing scholarship and archival sources, both in original languages and in translation, and thereby construct a multi-perspectival history of North Korean foreign relations.

But the book is not the work of a “Cold War historian.” Although my work deals with the period generally considered the Cold War (late 1940s to early 1990s), my problematique is not the Cold War as such, but more broadly international relations in the twentieth century and Korea’s place in it. My approach to history is partly shaped by my early training in political science and international relations, and my work is primarily argumentative rather than descriptive. I benefited greatly from the newfound accessibility of Soviet and East European archives to Western scholars, which scholars mined throughout the 1990s into the 2000s for all sorts of insights into domestic and international histories formerly hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Much exciting and innovative scholarship emerged from this access, and I have gained tremendously from the sources gathered and translated by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) and its spinoff North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP). I have certainly relied on the fine work of others, particularly specialists in Soviet and in East European history, which are not my areas of expertise. I especially benefitted from the pioneering scholarship of authors such as Alexandre Mansourov, Kathryn Weathersby, Andrei Lankov, Ruediger Frank, Balazs Szalontai, and Sergei Radchenko, all of who are cited and acknowledged in my book.

Languages, notes, and mistakes

My field is East Asian history, and I came to the study of Russia quite late, after the publication of my first book, The North Korea Revolution, 1945 – 1950 (Cornell, 2003). 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.

There is not the space or the necessity here to respond to every one of the problems raised. However I would like to give a few examples of the types of issues I found in a re-examination of the book and how I have attempted to correct clear errors.

  • Collection citation. 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. There are a number of other documents cited in this way, and in the interest of complete accuracy I could adjust the citation to a more standard format, but I did not feel it was essential to do so in the context of the chapter’s narrative of the Korean War. The narrative I describe does not diverge significantly from the work of Mansourov and Weathersby on the Korean War, which is cited in my book and relies on the same or similar documents.
  • Secondary source citation. On p. 56, footnote 19, I cite a Russian source whose content I misread. This is a case of my working back through secondary sources to find original documents that support my argument, and here I was clearly mistaken. In my correction I cite Szalontai’s book Kim Il Sung and the Khrushchev Era, p. 45, which is more directly relevant, although I could have also searched for a more relevant source among the Russian documents.
  • Citation content. On p. 113, I refer to a conversation between Kim Il Sung and Zhou Enlai in November 1958, which I retrieved from the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives (CFMA). I suggest that in this conversation Zhou promised Chinese non-interference in Korean Affairs, a subject that a Chinese-reading critic pointed out was not in fact discussed. I have changed the text to read “Zhou Enlai met with Kim Il Sung in November 1958, and although they did not explicitly discuss China’s non-interference in Korean affairs, the meeting seemed intended in part to assuage Kim’s concerns after the Peng-Mikoyan debacle.” The citation itself is accurate and remains unchanged, nor is my basic argument affected.
  • Translation. A reader pointed out that the title of the Rodong Sinmun article I cite on p. 156, fn. 50, as “Historical Lessons We Have Gained from the Study of Affairs in Czechoslovakia” should more accurately be rendered “Historical Lessons of the Situation in Czechoslovakia.” I have changed the title accordingly and also adjusted my text to reflect the fact that the article supports the Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia.

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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