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Tyranny of the Weak: Part of a decade-long pattern?

Fyodor Tertitskiy, PhD candidate, Seoul National University  |  2017-02-20 11:51
Academics are often consulted by government officials for advice on decision-making processes. Since these decisions directly affect the lives of millions, we can all agree that the quality of expertise is of paramount importance – especially when it comes to the nuclear power most hostile to the Western world, North Korea. 

In the United States, someone perceived to be an expert on North Korea is likely to be consulted for insight into the nuclear crisis. Therefore, the scandal surrounding Columbia Professor Charles Armstrong's prize-winning book can have very real implications for us all. Unfortunately, recent discoveries show that the problem is even bigger than we thought.

By now everyone who has been following the case knows that Tyranny of the Weak contains dozens of items of information taken from a book called Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era, which was written by the Hungarian scholar Balazs Szalontai in 2005. Plagiarism is bad enough by itself. But the situation here is much worse, actually: some of the uncredited information in Tyranny has been altered slightly, either out of sloppiness or in the hope of making the plagiarism harder to detect. 

The first victim was the historical truth. For example, Armstrong claims that the North Korean security forces once entered the Bulgarian embassy in Pyongyang to arrest a Korean dissident, which is not true. (The real version of events can be found in Szalontai’s book.) But even this was not the worst of it. Plagiarized and often distorted information in Tyranny of the Weak comes with footnoted references to foreign-language documents which are either unrelated to the subject or do not exist at all. There is a table complied by Szalontai which shows 76 of such cases.

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation, however, is that Charles Armstrong has been engaging in this behavior for many years now. Take, for example, his article “Fraternal Socialism" which was published in 2005 in a British journal called Cold War History. There too we find the spurious citation of Soviet and East German sources. The same goes for an article Armstrong co-wrote for a book called Korea at the Center in 2006, his book The Koreas, which came out in 2007, and a working paper written for the US-Korea Center at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2008. All this was well before Tyranny of the Weak came out in 2013 with over 60 bogus citations.

The pattern shows that over and over again, in the course of many years, the Columbia professor put fake sources in his articles and book, deceiving readers, colleagues, editors, and publishers. It did not prevent Tyranny from receiving a John K. Fairbank Prize in 2014. By then, at the latest, he should at least have stopped his misconduct. 

Instead he continued with this sad pattern in a new article which he contributed to the book Everyday Life in Mass Dictatorship, which went on sale (for $90!) in 2016. This fact should silence those people who have implied that Tyranny is ancient history for which Armstrong should not have been publicly criticized. If Szalontai had not spoken out, there is no telling how many more times fake materials would have been used. 

Charles Armstrong responded to the Tyranny-related accusations in a post in his blogIn it he condemned Szalontai for publicly pointing out the problems in the book, and boasted about its being a “rich, multi-layered history of North Korean foreign relations," while admitting that he submitted 52 corrections to his editor at Cornell University Press. He denied that these 52 corrections have anything to do with plagiarism, yet did not explain how the original similarities came about. Nor did he explain what he plans to do about the combinations of plagiarism and fake sources in his other published works.  

I do not need to point out that Tyranny can be rich and multi-layered in only one sense: it is a rich layering of plagiarism upon source fabrication upon falsification. I am not really interested in how Armstrong, his employer, and his publishers plan to proceed, since what really matters in academia is not the twists and turns of our careers, but whether readers can trust our writings. What I want to stress is that Armstrong’s publications since 2005 should not be cited before a thorough check of the content and the references given. In short, caution is advised – to both scholars and decision-makers.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.
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