Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992
By Charles K. Armstrong
Cornell University Press, 2013, 328 pp.
Jager’s magisterial history of the Korean War incorporates all the latest research, material from newly opened archives, and lots of photographs. It covers the international context, the war on the ground, and controversies over germ warfare and prisoners of war. Although the story of atrocities committed by North Korean and Chinese troops has been told many times before, Jager gives equal attention to lesser-known atrocities perpetrated by U.S. and other allied troops and even by South Korean troops against their own people. She argues that the bitterness of the conflict helped harden Cold War antagonisms in Asia. The war was interrupted by an armistice in 1953 but has not formally ended. The second half of the book traces the history of North-South competition for the “mantle of Korean legitimacy” up to the present. After starting out in the weaker position, South Korea seems to have won the struggle, leading Jager to wonder whether North Korea’s only way out is to become an economic dependent of China -- specifically, a virtual “fourth province” of northeastern China.
Armstrong also examines the competition for legitimacy between the two Koreas during the Cold War. His book builds on the work of projects hosted at the Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C., and on his travels to various capitals; the result is a superb example of international history that makes use of multiple archives. In a pattern that continues today, Pyongyang’s provocations and intransigence abroad and tyranny at home were rooted in its unenviable geostrategic position as the focus of conflict and competition among several great powers. To benefit from those rivalries, North Korea employed what Armstrong calls “masterful manipulation.” Relations between the Kim dynasty and its patrons in Moscow, Beijing, and East Berlin were even worse than the outside world suspected. Yet all sides were trapped by their need for one another. As the Kims progressively destroyed the North Korean economy, they became increasingly dependent on outside help and increasingly unwilling to acknowledge the assistance. This rich analysis shows how the region’s weakest state has so often managed to dominate the region’s diplomatic agenda.