Donald Trump is locked in a stand-off with North Korea’s erratic leader Kim Jong-un and a regime that appears intent on developing an arsenal of nuclear missiles.
But in a candid exchange, that hints of his own insecurities as US president, Mr Trump on Sunday suggested he had some empathy with a young leader who took power unexpectedly while entrenched interests manoeuvred around him.
“People are saying is he sane? I have no idea,” said Mr Trump in a wide-ranging interview with CBS News to mark 100 days in office.
“I can tell you this: He was a young man of 26 or 27 when he took over from his father, when his father died. He’s dealing with obviously very tough people – in particular the generals and others – and at a very young age he was able to assume power.
“A lot of people I’m sure tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else, and he was able to do it.
“So obviously he’s a pretty smart cookie.”
It is not the first time Mr Trump has talked up Mr Kim’s skills as a young survivor.
Last week he told Reuters: “His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age.”
Mr Trump was careful to add that he was not praising the North Korean dictator, whose brutal regime executes dissidents (and is believed to be responsible for murdering Mr Kim’s estranged half-brother in Malaysia this year), simply pointing out that taking power in such circumstances was a tough thing to do.
The words have prompted intense speculation that Mr Trump is trying to find some common ground with his adversary and open a diplomatic channel by suggesting that Mr Kim is not irrational but was simply thrown into a very difficult situation at a tender age.