Summer Reading: Charles Armstrong’s Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World 1950-1992



Columbia Professor Charles Armstrong has written a new and highly-readable history of North Korea. He draws widely on the flood of material from the Soviet and Eastern European archives (in particular, the indispensable North Korea International Documentation Project) but supplements it with interesting interviews in far-flung places.

The book is framed in terms of the country’s international relations, and begins with a premise that I have always found convincing; that the realist focus on great power rivalries overlooks the way that so much of Cold War politics was driven by weak states, civil wars, anti-colonial movements and other developments on the “periphery.” But Armstrong weaves in analysis of domestic politics and political economy as well and the book has a particularly good eye for cultural issues. Despite the international focus, the book can easily be read as a more general history.

The first two chapters deal with the war and its immediate aftermath. A particularly interesting feature is a discussion of the two brief occupations: the North’s occupation of the South prior to the Incheon landing and the equally-short-lived allied occupation of the North. In both cases, the occupiers paid particular attention to cultural issues, propaganda and what the US called a “Reorientation Plan” that included everything from hangul publications to movies and puppet shows for the kids.

The book is yet another reminder of what my colleague Marc Noland calls the Groundhog Day nature of studying North Korea: the recurrence of similar policy choices and the highly predictable consequences of them. Learning is scant. Armstrong details the combination of juche with aid-seeking within the communist bloc, but unearths a number of interesting new details such as Soviet and East German participation in the urban planning experiments in Pyongyang and Hamhung.

Armstrong offers up particularly concise analyses of the consolidation of power by Kim Il Sung and the role that China and the Soviet Union played as their domestic allies were purged in the late 1950s. Again, Armstrong spotlights some interesting cultural consequences, such as the sharp fall-off in the performance of Western music, theatre and dance as the regime championed Korean themes. Armstrong notes that these restraints extended to the bedroom; in 1963, the country passed a law that forbade marriages between Koreans and foreigners, meaning almost entirely marriages with Eastern Europeans. Mixed couples were pushed out of Pyongyang and pressured to divorce.

Armstrong also returns repeatedly to the regime’s economic choices and their consequences: the heavy industry push, the neglect of agriculture and consumer goods, the recurrent food shortages that resulted. In an assessment provided by Kim Il Sung to Kosygin in 1965, however, Kim Il Sung explained the shortfalls in the economy to external forces: the failure of the fraternal countries to come through and the “necessity” of diverting resources to the military.

Tyranny patiently walks through the odd Third World-ist diplomacy of the 1960s and 1970s when triumphal tours of poor African and Eastern European countries were treated as substantively significant; there is an interesting short section on North Koreans in Ethiopia. Armstrong shows a wry sense of humor in reproducing pictures of Kim Il Sung with Qadaffi, Mugabe, Daniel Ortega, Honecker and a Constantine Chenenko who looks like he is already embalmed. But the deeper point is that while pursuing these diplomatic fantasies, the significant opportunities offered by Europe and Japan were squandered; in a case that was new to us, Armstrong outlines the rise and rapid fall of economic relations with a France that seemed surprisingly willing to assist Pyongyang in the early 1970s.

In a particularly telling section, Armstrong walks through a trip that Kim Il Sung took to the Soviet Union in 1984 that included in addition to Moscow stops in a number of  the Eastern European capitals as well. As Armstrong notes, “looking at Kim’s East Bloc tour from the vantage point of twenty-first century history, it seems like a journey through an ancient civilization on the brink of collapse.” Armstrong continually returns to the theme of how North Korea navigated between Beijing and Moscow. But these diplomatic efforts were completely disengaged from what was actually happening in the two countries: the deep decay in the Soviet Union and the increasingly-apparent dynamism in gradual reformism in China.

The solipsism is striking. In a visit to Moscow two short years later in 1986—by which time the world had already changed substantially with Gorbachev’s commitment to reform and a new foreign policy, including in Asia—Kim could still cling to the belief that opposition to the Chun dictatorship in the South would ultimately tip his way: “there is a large movement for socialism in the South; work is being carried out to create a national front….” and so on. A final coda to the era comes with Honnecker’s visit to Pyongyang in late 1986, when Kim Il Sung would explain that the aim of the 1987-1993 plan was to “resolve the food problem and provide residential living space and adequate clothing” for the North Korean people.

The title of the book—Tyranny of the Weak—carries several meanings, from the way small powers draw in large ones to the tyrannical nature of the regime’s domestic politics and their foreign consequences. The broad outlines of the story are familiar; there are not breakthrough interpretations nor is it clear what they would be. But Armstrong covers the sweep of the Cold War period deftly and introduces interesting new color from the archives throughout.

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