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Book Review: Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World 1950-1992 – Charles K. Armstrong

Ford, G. (2013). Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World 1950-1992 by Charles K. Armstrong, Asian Review of Books, 29 November.

Charles Armstrong has done it again. His magisterial The North Korean Revolution, 1945-50 that used documents captured during the Korean War to eloquently make the case that the Korean Revolution was an indigenous one that chimed with Korean history, culture and tradition, unlike the imposed regimes of Eastern Europe, and therefore implicitly explaining why Pyongyang singularly failed to follow the Soviet Union and its Empire into oblivion in the 1990s.

Now Tyranny of the Weak uses the state archives of those very same failed states to explore the history of North Korean foreign policy—and its interplay with domestic politics—from 1945 until the U.S. victory in the Cold War.

After liberation in 1945 from Japanese colonization, Korea was casually carved up  between the victors in that sphere of the conflict—the USA and USSR—despite the Koreans themselves. The 38th parallel became the semi-permeable membrane that differentiated the country into two increasingly immiscible communities allowing as it did socialists and communists to move—often flee—North and small businessmen, Christians and collaborators to go South.

At the first opportunity, the leadership on both sides wanted to end the division by fighting it out. The North struck first, but Washington would not let Pyongyang win, and Beijing would not let them lose. When—after three years of carnage, carpet bombing and napalm—the civil war by proxy finally ended, one in six of the Korean population was dead and the North was destroyed as an industrial society. Kim Il Sung promptly purged the “domestic” faction that had vainly promised hundreds of thousands would rise in support in the South.

Aid poured in from the USSR, China and the Eastern Block. In 1954, it covered over a third of the budget. Yet Kim’s contested programme of collectivization, autarky and heavy industry worked.

With Khrushchev’s disavowal of Stalin’s legacy, Kim—not without cause—purged between 1956 and 1958 the other two contesting factions in the Party, the Soviet and Yanan factions, leaving him and his partisans in sole control.

By 1960, aid was down to less than 2.5% of GDP. The economy was booming and outperforming a basket-case South. There was a shortage of skilled labor and hundreds of thousands of Koreans in Japan were pushed by Tokyo and pulled by Pyongyang to return “home”. Their reception by those whose jobs and homes they were to take was “mixed”.

With the beginnings of the Sino-Soviet, split Kim Il Sung was between a rock and a hard place. He walked the tightrope between them with consummate skill, while continuing to twist the tiger’s tail, capturing the USS Pueblo in 1968.

But the first signs of trouble to come were beginning to show. In the North they were never able or even very willing to make the move away from heavy to light industry; meanwhile in the 1970s “cabal” capitalism started the long climb to bring the South where it is today: one of Asia’s economic successes.

The North went to the rest, not the West, as Kim tried to take a leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement. This peaked in the mid-70s before the “miracle on the Han river” started to drain away the Third World’s Northern preference toward the South. At the same time, the North played its role in the global revolution. They sent pilots to battle the U.S.—probably significantly more than the 87 mentioned by Armstrong—where they suffered heavy losses.

North Korean troops and military advisors were to be found in the 70s across Africa. In Ethiopia, they helped Mengistu with his war against Somalia. In Angola, they sided with the FNLA who were also backed by Washington. The North had a thousand troops there as late as 1985. They also had quirky relations with Forbes Burnham’s Guyana and Dom Mintoff’s Malta. Party-to-party relations included German Trotskyists, Belgium Communists, French Socialists and the U.S.’s Black Panthers. This might explain the visit—unmentioned by Armstrong—by Francois Mitterrand to Pyongyang just months before he was elected President.

There was an attempt to open up to Japan and the West for technology and capital. Trade in the late 1970s was split evenly between USSR, China, Africa and Europe. It didn’t last long as Pyongyang was forced to default on its repayments after the 1983 “oil shock”.

By 1985, close to 50% of trade was back with Moscow.

The writing was on the wall. Even the Communists were cuddling up to Seoul.

The “domino theory” was stood on its head. The USSR fell, knocking over almost all the other pieces saving the odd outliers.

North Korea was one of these redoubts, not pushed over even by US “Operations Plan 5030” designed in 2002 to force ever higher military spending in the North so as to lead to collapse as the economic lie the North was living grew larger and larger.

The result was the North’s renewed interest in nuclear weapons, first started in the period of the South’s aggressive nuclear programme under President Park in the 1970s. For Pyongyang, nuclear weapons were and are the cheap option to guarantee regime survival.

Charles Armstrong shows that where we are today was driven by history. Tyranny of the Weak is to be recommended for process and product: it is excellently written and has a good story to tell.

Can one carp? Just a little. The biggest complaint is that for Armstrong, the North that never gets anything right did miraculously manage to be an economic success story up until the 1970s, but there is no hint of how. On the detail, two caveats. First, while admittedly not enormous, Armstrong underestimates the role of the Pyongyang-controlled Revolutionary Party for Unification and the guerilla movement in South Korea in the 1970s.

Second, terror was a two-way street even if the flows weren’t even. South Korean assassins and terrorist groups were sent North for decades as recent campaigns in the South from survivors for recompense make clear. The U.S. joined in as well. The CIA killed five senior North Korean officials, including the Vice-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee when they blew up Cuban flight CU455 in 1976. They killed 68 innocent civilians at the same time.

If one has to fault Tyranny of the Weak at all, it is that it is too often only one side of the “conversation”.