“Under my auspices,” US President Donald Trump seemed to say Tuesday, the CIA would not, as claimed in a new book, have made an informant of Kim Jong Un’s elder half brother, Kim Jong Nam, whom agents for the Kim regime assassinated last February in Kuala Lumpur.

“I saw the information about the CIA, with respect to [Kim Jong Un’s] brother, or half-brother,” Trump told journalists who questioned him on the White House lawn about the reported CIA contacts. “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 was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, less than a month before the last CIA contacts with Kim Jong Nam were reported to have occurred. The Washington Post account contended that the quoted words were sufficiently ambiguous to permit the interpretation that under Trump’s “auspices” Kim Jong Un would not have had his brother killed. That seems quite a stretch.

To some commentators in Washington, the remark raised the question whether Trump intends for US spy agencies to give a free pass, as well, to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, two other leaders of rival countries with whom he claims to have good relationships.

The exchange with journalists:

THE PRESIDENT: So, I see that. And I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un, and I think the relationship is very well. But I appreciated the letter. 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.

But I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un. I can’t show you the letter, obviously, but it was a very personal, very warm, very nice letter. I appreciate it.

And I’ll say it again: I think that North Korea has tremendous potential, and he’ll be there. I think that North Korea, under his leadership – but North Korea, because of what it represents – the people are great, the land is great, the location is incredible between Russia, China, and South Korea. I think North Korea has tremendous potential. And the one that feels that more than anybody is Kim Jong Un. He gets it. He totally gets it.

Q: (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know. I have not heard about that, but we’ll see.

Q: (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: I would, but I want to get it further advanced.

In the meantime, no nuclear testing. No major missile testing. Nothing like when I first got here. When I first got here, it was a bad mess.

We have a very good relationship together. Now I can confirm it because of the letter I got yesterday. And I think – you know, I think that something will happen that’s going to be very positive. But in the meantime, we have our hostages back. The remains [of dead US soldiers] keep coming back. We have a relationship.

Q: Do you think he had his half-brother killed? Do you think he had his half-brother killed?

Q: Are you saying that the CIA (inaudible) was wrong?

THE PRESIDENT: Say it?

Q: Was the CIA wrong? Did he have his half-brother killed?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t know anything about that. I know this: That the relationship is such that that wouldn’t happen under my auspices. But I don’t know about that. Nobody knows.

[…]

Q: Any plan, any thought, about another meeting with Kim Jong Un?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it could happen, but I want to bring it further down the line.

Look, in the meantime, he’s kept his word. There’s no nuclear testing, there’s no large, you know, long-range missiles going up. The only thing he sent up were very short-term, short-range. That was just a test of short range. It’s a whole different deal.

But he’s kept his word to me; that’s very important. And again, the letter he sent was a beautiful letter. It was a very warm letter. That’s a very nice thing. And I don’t say that out of naiveté. I say that was a very nice letter.

What the new book says

The new book, published on Tuesday, states flatly that, before his murder, Kim Jong Nam had become “an informant for the CIA.”

The book is The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Anna Fifield.

Although there had been similar reports earlier, they had tended toward the tentative. On the same February 2017 journey during which he was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Fifield notes, a hotel elevator security camera pictured him with “an Asian-looking man who was reported to be an American intelligence agent.”

That sighting was indeed widely reported, but Fifield says she has gone farther and confirmed the CIA connection.

“His brother would have considered talking to American spies a treacherous act,” the author writes. “But Kim Jong Nam provided information to them, usually meeting his handlers in Singapore or Malaysia.”

This information, she adds in an endnote, is based on “an interview with someone with knowledge of the intelligence who spoke on condition of anonymity.”

Kim Jong Nam was killed by a pair of Southeast Asian women who rubbed on his face two separate ingredients that, together, became a deadly poison. At their trials, the two testified that North Koreans had duped them into the mission by characterizing it as a harmless prank.

After Kim Jong Nam was killed, his backpack was found to contain US$120,000 in cash. Fifield writes that this “could have been payment for his intelligence-related activities,” although another possible source was a gambling business she describes as having been run by the ruler’s estranged sibling.