“He's 27 years old,” Trump said. “His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age.”
Trump went on to clarify that he wasn't praising the North Korean leader.
“I'm not giving him credit or not giving him credit; I'm just saying that's a very hard thing to do,” Trump said. “As to whether or not he's rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he's rational.”
Trump's comments come as his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is signaling a rare willingness to hold direct talks with North Korea in search of a diplomatic solution. Tillerson told NPR in an interview set to air Friday, “Obviously, that will be the way we would like to solve this.”
Tillerson also appeared to lay the groundwork for diplomacy Thursday, telling Fox News's Bret Baier that the North Korean leader may not be as crazy as his reputation suggests. (As The Washington Post's Anna Fifield has reported, this is the consensus of the North Korea experts, who say dismissing Kim as unstable risks miscalculation.)
“All indications, Bret, by intelligence agencies ... are that he is not crazy,” Tillerson said. “He may be ruthless, he may be a murderer, he may be someone who in many respects we would say, by our standards, is irrational. But he is not insane.”
Tillerson added: “And indications are in the past that when certain events have happened, he has taken — made rational choices.”
So it seems possible that Trump's comments are part of a calculated effort to reason with the North Korean leader — in hopes that he will give up his nuclear ambitions voluntarily. Trump seemed to take things a step further than merely saying Kim is rational, granting that he was put in a difficult spot leading his nation at such a young age.
In the same Reuters interview, though, Trump also suggested that a conflict may result — a “major, major conflict.”
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump said, adding: “We'd love to solve things diplomatically, but it's very difficult.”
And Trump has in the past offered qualified praise for authoritarian, strongman leaders — including Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
“He was a bad guy — really bad guy,” Trump said of Hussein. “But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists — over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”
Update: In a separate Washington Post interview, Trump also interestingly suggests renegotiating or voiding the United States's trade deal with South Korea -- perhaps a sign to North Korea that the Americans aren't completely in the tank for Seoul.