Book Review: Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World,1950-1992

Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992

Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 by Charles K. Armstrong is an attempt to break through the walls of secrecy that is North Korea. Armstrong is a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University. He has an impressive academic record including a Bachelors of Arts degree from Yale, a Masters from the London School of Economics, and a PhD from the University of Chicago. He has written three other books on Korean history and society.

The first part opens with the Korean War and the North’s Blitzkrieg capture of Seoul in three days. It examines the role of the United States, China, and the Soviet Union in the conflict. The destruction in both the North and South changed Korea. The South with aid moved from being a third world economy to the first world and the North which had be prosperous until 1950 began a slide into ruin. The North appears to make a quick recovery after the war, but falters. Most of the initial recovery was due to foreign aid from other communist countries particularity USSR, China, and East Germany. North Korea did not fall in line with other communist countries. It accepted aid, but went its own way, especially after Khrushchev took over the Soviet Union and denounced Stalin: a hero to Kim. North Korea seemed to search for enemies even in its friends.

North Korea played by its own rules. It took aid, but was not a grateful nation for it. Eastern European technicians were treated poorly by North Korean authorities while providing aid. The incident with the USS Pueblo, while openly supported by the USSR, was criticized behind closed doors as excessively confrontational and counterproductive. Pressure from the Chinese stopped North Korea from invading the South in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

North Korea moved to opening to the world slightly. Moving from first world trading partners to the Third World, North Korea looked to build support in the United Nations. Korea sided with Iran after its revolution, not in any ideological way but rather to support Iran’s anti-American voice. The 1970s bring more change to Korea as its alliances shift from China (now on friendlier terms with the Untied States) to the Soviet Union. North Korea needs urgent help building its economy and help building its nuclear reactor. The late 1980s bring further frustration to North Korea. The Seoul Olympic Games are an embarrassment to North Korea who has no where the economy and standard of living of South Korea. Secondly, South Korea opened trade to communist nations and North Korea saw it closest allies one by one take advantage of the offer. With the fall of the Soviet Union and China opening relations with South Korea, North Korea stood alone.

Tyranny of the Weak covers the rule of Kim Il Sung and shows him as an ineffective leader. He may have had the support of his people, but his policies and actions as a leader did little to benefit the nation. Although Kim Il Jung would not come to power until 1994 he is mentioned in the book as the student who out performed his political economy professors and the person who ordered the kidnapping a South Korean Film director. The young Kim would quickly run up the ranks of power.

This is the best North Korean history I have read so far. Armstrong uses detailed source information including documents from the former Soviet archives. Extensively foot noted and meticulously detailed he not only writes the history but also supports what he writes. He also keeps the book centered on telling a serious historical study of the country rather than concentrating on the Kim’s cult of personality. There was more to North Korea than its leader. If you are going to read one book about North Korea or have any interesting the country, this is the book to read.

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