Trump assures Jong Un over CIA after WSJ report

US President Donald Trump (right), seen here with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the 2018 summit in Singapore. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump took a public stance against the use of CIA informants to spy on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, saying it would not happen on his watch and possibly taking away a valuable tool of the US intelligence community.

Trump’s remarks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House represented a fresh attempt by the president to cosy up to the North Korean leader, a policy that has drawn criticism for seeming to overlook Jong Un’s autocratic rule.

Trump spoke a day after the Wall Street Journal reported that Jong Un’s slain half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was a source for the US Central Intelligence Agency. Jong Nam was killed at klia2 in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.

“I saw the information about the CIA, with respect to his brother, or half-brother. And I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices,” Trump said.

His comments represented the latest in a series of instances in which he has appeared to be at odds with the US intelligence community.

The CIA had no immediate comment on the remarks.

Susan Rice, who was national security adviser for Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, tweeted her reaction to the remarks: “America, this tells you all you need to know about our so-called ‘Commander-in-Chief.'”

Nuclear-armed North Korea, a police state largely sealed off from the outside world that uses extensive networks of informants to spy on their fellow citizens, is considered a “hard target” by the US intelligence community because of the difficulty of recruiting agents.

Preventing the CIA from being able to recruit sources like Jong Un’s late half-brother or highly placed North Koreans would deny the agency valuable insights into its leadership and threats to regional and US security.

“The president should understand that to keep the nation safe, the CIA needs to be able to do its job gathering and analysing intelligence that will support the full range of diplomatic, military, and economic policies and initiatives,” Jung H Pak, a former senior US intelligence official who specialised in East Asia and is now with the Brookings Institution think tank, wrote in an email.

Washington is seeking to rebuild momentum in stalled talks with Pyongyang, aimed at getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. Trump and Jong Un last met early this year in Hanoi but failed to reach a denuclearisation agreement. Trump hailed what he called a “beautiful” letter he received from Jong Un. “I think that something will happen that’s going to be very positive,” he said, while giving no details.

Trump, who has described previous correspondence from Jong Un as “beautiful letters”, said the most recent one was a “very warm, very nice letter.” He repeated that he believes North Korea has “tremendous potential.”

After exchanging insults and war-like rhetoric with Jong Un early in his presidency, Trump in the past year has repeatedly praised him. They have held two summits as Trump tries to convert what he feels is a warm personal relationship into a diplomatic breakthrough.

North Korean state media called on the US earlier on Tuesday to “withdraw its hostile policy” towards Pyongyang or agreements made at their first summit in Singapore might become “a blank sheet of paper”.

Trump, speaking a day before the one-year anniversary of their landmark Singapore summit, did not rule out another meeting with Jong Un. He is due to travel to Japan and South Korea later this month.

Trump said Jong Un had thus far kept his promises not to test long-range ballistic missiles or conduct underground nuclear tests.

“He’s kept his word to me. That’s very important,” said Trump.

In May, North Korea conducted a “strike drill” for multiple launchers, firing tactical guided weapons in a military drill supervised by Jong Un.

Trump said at the time that those launches did not pose a problem in his eyes, although his advisers called them a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.