President Trump on Friday complimented Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian rule in North Korea, observing with apparent envy that when the 35-year-old dictator speaks, “his people sit up at attention.”

“He’s the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head,” Trump told Fox News Channel. “Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

It was unclear whether Trump was referring to the American people or only to his staff. His interview with “Fox & Friends” co-host Steve Doocy took place along the West Wing driveway, and as the president talked about “my people” he gestured toward the White House.

Later, when pressed by a CNN reporter about the comment, Trump claimed it had been a joke.

President Trump on June 15 said the U.S. now has a very good relationship with North Korea. (Reuters)

“I’m kidding,” he said. Admonishing the journalist, the president added, “You don’t understand sarcasm.”

During his Fox interview, Trump showered praise on Kim and said “it’s great to give him credibility.” He noted that he gave Kim “a very direct number” and instructed him to “call me if he has any difficulties.”

“We have a really great relationship for the first time ever,” Trump told Doocy. “No president’s ever had this. So I get hit by these fakes back here” — he pointed dismissively to a group of journalists who were gathered behind him on the driveway — “not all of them, some are phenomenal, but I get hit because I went there, I gave him credibility. I think it’s great to give him credibility.”

Trump defended his salute of one of Kim’s generals, footage of which was released Thursday by North Korean state media as propaganda.

“I met a general,” Trump said on Fox. “He saluted me and I saluted him back. I guess they’re using that as another sound bite. You know, I think I’m being respectful to the general.”

After his interview with the friendly Fox host, Trump was pressed by reporters about Kim’s record of human rights atrocities and why he had not more forcefully challenged the North Korean dictator.

Trump replied that he was trying to cultivate a friendship with Kim to avoid military conflict, telling one reporter, “Because I don’t want to see a nuclear weapon destroy you and your family.”

Trump touted the broad agreement he reached with Kim and said the North Koreans already have begun returning the remains of U.S. soldiers missing during the Korean War.