Donald Trump downplayed concerns about the human rights record of Kim Jong-un after meeting the North Korean leader, praising the authoritarian Mr Kim as “very smart” and “tough”.
While the president has drawn praise for agreeing to a summit with Mr Kim with the aim of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, he has also faced criticism for failing to challenge a North Korean regime that is among the world’s most repressive.
Asked during an Air Force One interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier about meeting with a leader who is “clearly executing people”, Mr Trump lauded Mr Kim as a “tough guy” who had demonstrated his prowess by inheriting power as a young man.
“Hey, when you take over a country – tough country, tough people – and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have – if you could do that at 27 years old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 that could do that”, said Mr Trump, who is himself the scion of a powerful family.
“So he’s a very smart guy,” Mr Trump added. “He’s a great negotiator”.
Pressed by Mr Baier, who said Mr Kim has “done some really bad things”, Mr Trump responded that “so have a lot of other people”.
“I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done”, Mr Trump said.
As North Korea’s undisputed ruler, Mr Kim presides over a totalitarian state whose tools of control include executions and mass imprisonment of political opponents.
A United Nations inquiry found “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the isolated country. Human Rights Watch describes Mr Kim as using “public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor” to maintain power and generate “fearful obedience”.
The president has a habit of admiring words for authoritarians, and his statement equating North Korea’s actions with “a lot of other people” recalled controversial remarks in which he defended Russian leader Vladimir Putin after Bill O’Reilly called the premier a “killer”.
“There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?” Mr Trump asked at the time.
During his interview with Mr Baier, Mr Trump also spoke favourably of Chinese president Xi Jingping becoming de facto “president for life”.
“That’s pretty good”, Mr Trump said.