Trump talks 'major conflict' with North Korea, alongside empathetic comments about Kim Jong Un

Washington Post

President Donald Trump is currently engaged in a match of escalating rhetoric and even military posturing with Kim Jong Un. And Trump has some thoughts on his adversary — thoughts in which Trump notably appears to empathize with him.

In a new interview with Reuters, Trump weighs in on whether the North Korean dictator is a rational leader by pointing to the situation in which he found himself: Succeeding his late father, Kim Jong Il, at a very young age.

"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 notably 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 tells 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 Post's Anna Fifield has reported, this is the consensus of the North Korea experts, who say dismissing Kim as unstable risks miscalculating.)

"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 would give up his nuclear ambitions voluntarily. Trump seems to take things a step further than merely saying Kim Jong Un 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 suggests a conflict may ultimately 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 — up to and 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."

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