A South Korean official announced outside the West Wing Thursday evening that Pyongyang has extended an invitation to President Trump to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a move that would mark a major breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
“President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization," South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-Yong told reporters.
Chung noted he had informed Trump that Kim said "he's committed to denuclearization" and that "Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests."
Trump had made a rare appearance in the White House briefing room earlier Thursday to hint at the coming announcement on Korean relations, although he did not speak directly to his upcoming meeting with Kim immediately after Chung's announcement.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday that Trump would leave sanctions against North Korea intact despite Kim's concession to a meeting, the time and place of which she said would be worked out in the days ahead.
“President Trump greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon [Jae-in]. He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea," Sanders said. "In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
Trump reacted to the announcement on Twitter Thursday evening, touting "great progress." He said North Korea will not be conducting missile tests in the meantime, but sanctions will be remain in place "until an agreement is reached."
Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
A senior administration official said the U.S. informed North Korea that routine American and South Korean military exercises would continue on the peninsula in the run-up to the meeting.
The senior administration official cited North Korea's "commitment to denuclearize" and the regime's promise to stop testing weapons as reasons why Trump decided to accept Kim's invitation.
"He is will to accept an invitation at this time to meet and to allow — and really, he expects North Korea to start putting action to these words that were conveyed by the South Koreans," the official said.
"At this point, we're not even talking about negotiations," the official noted, adding that the announcement Thursday was limited to a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim.
Trump spoke by phone Thursday to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the official said.
South Korean officials had already revealed Kim's willingness to discuss dismantling his nuclear weapons program, as North and South Korea recently begun a round of negotiations about the future of the peninsula. However, administration officials have remained skeptical about the sincerity of North Korea's offers.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just hours earlier that the U.S. was “a long ways from negotiations” with North Korea, and he has called for “talks about talks” instead of pursuing a more aggressive plan.
“I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations,” Tillerson said. “We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it."
The Trump administration has spearheaded international sanctions intended to strain North Korea's economy and bring the rogue nation to the negotiating table. Described as a campaign of "maximum pressure," the sanctions regime has become the focal point of Trump's strategy toward North Korea, even as Pyongyang has continued to develop weapons they say are capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
Trump's plan for dealing with North Korea has also centered heavily on China. Despite Trump's misgivings about China's trade practices, the president has held back on labeling the country a currency manipulator or going after its intellectual property theft as he has encouraged China to use its influence in Pyongyang to curb Kim's nuclear ambition.
Thursday's announcement comes after South Korean negotiators earlier this week met with Kim in Pyongyang. The meeting signified the first time Kim has met with South Korean leaders face to face since Kim became leader of North Korea in 2011, according to CNN, and has been described as a possible turning point in the West's relations with North Korea.
Chung reportedly met with national security adviser H.R. McMaster on Thursday as part of a two-day visit to the U.S.
Vice President Mike Pence had indicated as recently as this week that North Korea had not demonstrated sufficient progress toward showing its commitment to regional security.
"Our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable, and concrete steps toward denuclearization," Pence had said in a statement.
Pence actively ignored Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games last mont in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Kim’s sister was the North Korean vice director of propaganda and agitation. She and Pence were seated closely together at the Winter Olympic’s opening ceremony, but the two did not meet.
Trump's talk about North Korea and its leader have been less than cordial over the course of his first year in office.
He issued stern warnings to Pyongyang as they have ramped up its nuclear weapons and missile programs. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters in August. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
In September, Trump taunted Kim in from of the United Nations General Assembly and called him “Rocket Man.” He warned that the U.S. would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if the rogue regime threatened the U.S. or its allies.
In response, Kim said, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”
The United Nations Security Council made a unanimous decision in December to implement stricter sanctions upon a North Korea in response to a missile test from the rogue regime.
The new sanctions were designed to lower limits of North Korea’s oil imports, require North Koreans working abroad to return to North Korea within 24 months to deprive the nation of foreign currency, and crack down on North Korea’s exports.