President Donald Trump on Wednesday hesitated to criticize the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amid muddied reports that some of the country’s top representatives in nuclear talks with the U.S. had been purged or killed.
Last week, a South Korean newspaper reported that Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s former spy chief and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart, had been sentenced to hard labor after February’s nuclear summit between the two countries failed to yield an agreement.
Story Continued Below
According to the paper, Kim Yong Chol had been purged from the regime, an undoubtedly lighter sentence than nuclear envoy Kim Hyok Chol and four other diplomats who were reportedly executed over the breakdown of nuclear talks. Both men had been involved in talks about the summit between Trump and Kim, and Kim Yong Chol even visited the White House in January. But the reports, which are always tricky to verify due to North Korea’s tight control over information, were thrown into doubt when Kim Yong Chol appeared in public Monday at a theater event with the dictator, according to state media.
Trump was asked about the reports on Wednesday during a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, where he appeared to defend North Korea’s dictator, who has a record of executing those who believes have slighted him.
“I don’t know the reports are correct because one of the gentlemen who we deal with, this is North Korea they’re talking about, is somebody that we know well he’s a strong man, he’s a strong person,” he told reporters.
Trump denounced how quickly many rush to judgment about Kim, telling reporters that “they like to blame Kim Jong Un immediately. But they said he was killed, and he wasn’t, he was at the theater the other night. So he wasn’t killed. The other four people I know nothing about.”
He called the confusion an “interesting situation,” before mentioning that he would like to strike a deal with Kim to wind down the country’s nuclear programs.
Trump’s gentle treatment of Kim has been the root of criticism from across the political spectrum. Following February’s failed talks, he suggested that he believed Kim’s denials of involvement in the eventual death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who became comatose while being held hostage in North Korea and died upon being returned to U.S. soil. His comments earned him a lashing from Warmbier’s parents at the time and has fueled Trump’s reputation for coddling strongman leaders.
And just weeks ago, the president came under fire again for contradicting his administration and U.S. allies by failing to condemn a missile test by Pyongyang, and by siding with the dictator’s criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden while overseas in Japan.