President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May, setting in motion the most significant development in years of intermittent negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The invitation to meet was delivered in person by a South Korean envoy who met with Trump and key national security officials in the Oval Office on Thursday, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters following the announcement.
Speaking outside the White House, South Korea's National Security Office head Chung Eui-yon said Kim "expressed eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible."
Kim has also pledged that his country will "refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests" while talks are underway, Chung said. "President Trump appreciated the briefing, and said he would meet him to achieve permanent denuclearization."
Both the time and place have yet to be discussed, said the administration official, who emphasized that the development was just a meeting, and not a promise of sanctions relief or concessions from the United States.
"We're not even talking about negotiations," he said.
"The president is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks, but he's willing to meet and he expects North Korea to start putting action to these words," the official said.
In the long term, the United States "will settle for nothing less than denuclearization. It's what we expect and what the world expects," he added.
The president has been coordinating closely with South Korea and Japan in recent weeks, the official said. Following his Oval Office meeting with South Korean diplomats, Trump spoke by phone Thursday evening with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Both the South Korean envoy and the White House emphasized that routine joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea would continue as planned.
Joining Trump for the Oval Office meeting with Chung and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon, were National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, CIA Deputy Director Gina Haskell and John Sullivan, a deputy secretary of state. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Ethiopia on official travel.
The White House defended Trump's decision to bypass the traditional process of bilateral security negotiations, in which talks between lower level officials are held first, concessions are discussed next, and face-to-face meetings between the leaders are often the last step.
According to the White House, Trump's approach will be to combine direct high-level talks with a refusal to discuss concessions until much later.
"Trump has made his reputation on making deals, and Kim is the only one who can make decisions," said the senior official. "So it made sense to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions."
The president sounded optimistic about the prospect of talks Thursday evening, writing on Twitter that, "Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!"
But not everyone is convinced that Trump's approach can succeed. Earlier in the week, the two top U.S. intelligence chiefs expressed skepticism over the latest burst of diplomacy.
"All efforts in the past have failed and have simply bought North Korea time to achieve what they want to achieve," Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it."
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the North Korean leader "shows no interest in walking away from his nuclear or ballistic missile programs."
He added that Kim has "pressed his nation down a path to develop nuclear weapons and deliver them with ballistic missiles that can reach South Korea, Japan, Guam and the United States."
Last year alone, North Korea launched 24 missiles and carried out its largest nuclear test.