This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on November 4, 2017, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un © visiting an undisclosed location. (Photo: STR / AFP / Getty Images)
In September, as Donald Trump took the podium in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, there was a sense that his war on establishment conservatism was hitting its breaking point. His campaign was founded on a populist form of civic nationalism, a battle to put “America First” against the notion of global coordination and siblingship. It was this opportunity where he could have cemented himself as a respected world leader, at least to a point, rather than a symbol of the decline of US hegemony. Instead, he tried to appeal both to the international community and his base, effectively alienating both.
“No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea,” fumed Trump.
“No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles. The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The subtext of Trump’s assault on North Korea is that he continues to stand up to despotic “socialist” leaders, with Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro simply another in this line. Trump’s increased tensions with Kim Jong-un seemed like a shot and a win for Trump’s tough-guy persona, but while this may pull on strings in the heartland, the hardline nationalist contingent of Trump’s base is adding his approach to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as another example of his capitulation to “globalism” and the beltway.
Nationalism Against Globalism
The war of words, and potentially of arms, is an idea wholly rejected by the “alt-right,” the insurrectionary white nationalist contingent that rode Trump’s campaign into the culture over the last two years. Matthew Heimbach, the founder of the white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party, took to his podcast last year to vocalize his support for the North Korean government and, what he noted, was its politics of racial identity.
“North Korea is a nation that stands against imperialism and globalism around the world,” says Heimbach, disingenuously using anti-imperialist rhetoric.
“The battle of the 21st century is nationalism against globalism…. The very identity of the nation comes from an actual national socialist perspective, specifically also deriving elements from Japanese fascism.”
From “alt-right” publisher Counter-Currents to AltRight.com, the idea that Trump could engage in a preemptive military contest with Kim Jong-un was derided in the strongest terms. For a left that assumes the vulgar white supremacy of the “alt-right” would lead to jingoist chauvinism in its foreign policy, this seems like a contradiction in terms. For the “alt-right,” this actually presents one of the few moments of internal consistency and clarity and elucidates exactly the mobility its talking points have.
The Cleanest Race
Heimbach made his declarations of support for the Kim legacy after reading The Cleanest Race, a book by liberal American-Korean academic Brian R. Myers on the culture and identity of the DPRK. By looking at North Korea’s propaganda, and the way that it discusses itself specifically, Myers took a novel diversion from the typical presentation of the DPRK as either a Stalinist “socialism in one country” state or a regal monarchy. While Kim Il-sung developed a Maoist-inspired revolution in Korea, he strongly diverted from the Marxist-Leninist focus on class identity over reactionary national caste. Instead, Il-sung was inspired by the colonial influence of imperial Japanese fascism, the State Shinto of palingenetic myths and ultra-nationalism.
The strong authoritarian leadership derives from a mythic notion of leadership, one who gains their power by stoking xenophobia, national impulsiveness and the belief in the innate purity of the Korean ethnic group inhabiting the DPRK. This “paranoid race-based nationalism,” as Myers identifies it, is at the heart of the development of Korea’s politics, especially foreign policy, where Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un inspire confidence in their leadership by focusing on the degeneracy of Western imperialism. This shift away from Marxism and instead to a type of national socialism comes in the development of Juche, which means “self-reliance,” which is sort of a “Korea First” ethic of isolationism. While focusing on the crimes of the US, including very real and devastating harm, the North Korean leaders also focus on portraying the West as ethnically polluted, which is in contrast to the mythic purity of the Korean people.
While Myers’s analysis has remained controversial in the study of North Korean policy, it has permeated a fascist movement that is always looking for allies, even across the racial divide. Counter-Currents went as far as to publish a review of the book, citing it in a host of articles outlining the example of the “Ethno-state” that the DPRK provides.
The “alt-right” was, to a degree, an attempt by people like the National Policy Institute’s Richard Spencer to port over the European New Right’s ideas to the US. That movement, headed by Alain de Benoist in France, focused on rebranding fascist ideas using many concepts popularized by the left. Starting in the 1960s, the New Right began to use the language of post-colonialism and anti-imperialism to frame its own ethnic nationalism as the same struggle as the movements shuffling off Western domination. They made this comparison with the language of “Ethno-pluralism,” arguing for a “nationalism for all peoples.” Their answer to the degenerating effects of global capitalism was to reinforce nationalism, both for colonized and oppressed people and for themselves as white Europeans. This has been why they have often shown support for Black nationalists in the US, the Tibetan independence movement and the rights of Indigenous people, all of which is a wholly disingenuous effort to develop an argumentation that provides fascist movements cover.
With the DPRK and Juche, they may have found another type of nationalism to support, calling Kim Jong-un’s authoritarian regime the Korean version of a national socialism: a state for a distinct people. They support the language of anti-imperialism that North Korea uses since, by integrating racial identity, the DPRK successfully ties anti-imperialist rhetoric to nationalism rather than the Marxist internationalism found in Marxist-Leninist national liberation movements. While the “alt-right’s” vulgar racism has revealed its open white supremacy, members will continue to argue that they are simply arguing for “identitarianism” as a neutral ideological concept. If they can disconnect it from their own white nationalism and instead present it as nationalism that can be applied to any people and situation, it can shift the perspective away from their own promotion of white supremacy.
Few on the “alt-right” thought that Trump was going to fully enact their ethnic fantasies, but they hoped to get through some clear policy points that would start them in the direction they want to see. This was primarily centered on immigration, but it also included a vision of foreign policy. The “alt-right” erupted largely in response to the hegemony of neoconservatism that favored hawkish foreign policy that prioritized foreign intervention. Trump instead argued for an isolationist “America First” policy, one that the far right has been united on for decades.
Several months ago, when Trump started the bombardment of Syrian airfields, the “alt-right” was up in arms, especially since many had supported the Assad regime, arguing that it was a Syrian nationalist movement in its own right. Now that Trump is turning his sites toward the DPRK, and even possibly Iran, he is continuing a neoconservative interventionist foreign policy that the “alt-right” finds abhorrent. The “alt-right’s” tenuous support for the DPRK emerges out of its own effort to rebrand nationalism, and if Trump is going to reject its position on foreign policy, then it will end even the fragmented support it is lending to his regime.
This presents a challenge to the anti-imperialist movement to avoid making disastrous allies when rightly opposing a possible nuclear conflict stoked by the US. The nationalist authoritarianism displayed in Pyongyang is not written by the North Korean people any more than the American working class determines US foreign policy, and so a strong support can be given to the Korean people against both the violence of US military action and the tyranny of the home state. Holding a strong analysis that maintains the centrality of Korean civilians aids in this, instead of capitulating to tyrannical leaders simply because of their place in opposition to US aggression. The “alt-right” desperately wants to pull from disaffected areas of the left for shared political points, yet with the motivating factors so at odds between the two camps, it is clarity and principles that can hold off entryism.