(WASHINGTON POST) - Russian officials made a secret proposal to North Korea last autumn aimed at resolving deadlocked negotiations with the Trump administration over the North's nuclear weapons programme, said United States officials familiar with the discussions.
In exchange for North Korea dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Moscow offered the country a nuclear power plant.
The Russian offer, which intelligence officials became aware of in late 2018, marks a new attempt by Moscow to intervene in the high-stakes nuclear talks as it reasserts itself into a string of geopolitical flashpoints from the Middle East and South Asia to Latin America.
It is unclear how United States President Donald Trump will view Moscow's proposal. For months, he has embraced an unorthodox approach to the negotiations, but his aides are likely to strenuously oppose any major Russian role in a final agreement.
As part of the deal, the Russian government would operate the plant and transfer all by-products and waste back to Russia, reducing the risk that North Korea would use the power plant to build nuclear weapons while providing the impoverished country a new energy source.
"The Russians are very opportunistic when it comes to North Korea and this is not the first time they've pursued an energy stake in Korea," said Mr Victor Cha, a former White House staff member whom the Trump administration considered nominating last year to serve as US ambassador to South Korea.
"Previous administrations have not welcomed these Russian overtures, but with Trump, you never know because he doesn't adhere to traditional thinking," Mr Cha said.
After months of delays and cancelled meetings, talks between the US and North Korea have gained new momentum, with the announcement of a second summit between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un planned for late February.
Mr Trump has been increasingly upbeat about another round of talks, but also frustrated by what he views as unfair media coverage of his diplomacy.
While he touts North Korea's suspension of missile launches and nuclear tests, critics have noted a lack of steps on the part of Pyongyang to reduce its nuclear capability.
"With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue," Mr Trump said this month. "I'm going to not go any further than that. I'm just going to say it's very special."
On Tuesday (Jan 29), a new US intelligence assessment of global threats concluded that North Korea is "unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities".
The intelligence community has long had a more pessimistic outlook than the White House and State Department on the nuclear talks.
The State Department, White House, CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the secret proposal. It is unclear whether the offer is still under negotiation or if it has impacted the discussions between Washington and Pyongyang.
If the Kim regime is interested, Russian officials have asked that Pyongyang provide a realistic timeline for when it could denuclearise, said people familiar with the discussions. The CIA has assessed that the Russian power plant would produce a very limited amount of weaponisable by-product, said one official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive information.
Experts said the idea borrows from the original blueprint of the failed 1994 accord between North Korea and the Clinton administration known as the Agreed Framework, which sought to accommodate North Korea's energy needs.
"It was technically possible for the US to provide light water reactors to North Korea under the Agreed Framework because Pyongyang agreed to remain a party of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and receive safeguards from the International Atomic Energy Agency," said Ms Duyeon Kim, a Korea expert at the Centre for a New American Security.
But she noted that the proposal proved controversial as discussions transitioned from the Clinton administration to that of George W. Bush.
"The Clinton administration was willing to allow them to have a nuclear energy programme, but the Bush administration, including John Bolton, was adamantly opposed to light water reactors," she added.
Mr Bolton, who was undersecretary of state for arms control under Mr Bush, now serves as Mr Trump's national security adviser. But the president has not followed Mr Bolton's hardline approach to the negotiations.
Diplomats and analysts familiar with Russia's actions said Moscow has a long-time interest in creating an energy link between Siberia and East Asia, as well as being viewed as a problem-solver for geopolitical crises.
"They want to be a player on the peninsula for economic and security reasons," said Mr Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics programme at CNA, a defence think-tank.
"They have aspirations to build a gas pipeline that extends through North Korea all the way down to South Korea, for example. They share a border with North Korea and want a say in how security in North-east Asia evolves."
Mr Gause added that he did not think the North Koreans would relinquish their nuclear programme until they normalise relations with the US and end the decades-long conflict between the two nations.
"The Russians can do whatever they can to facilitate the situation, but if the United States continues to be adversarial, the North Koreans are going to be very reluctant to take that deal," he said.
During negotiations with the George W. Bush administration, Russia proposed providing a light water reactor to North Korea in exchange for the dismantlement of North Korea's plutonium production facilities, said Mr Cha, who served in the Bush White House.
"The US was opposed to this," he said, because it wanted Pyongyang to accept an alternative energy solution that did not include nuclear power.
"I imagine the Russians want to provide a light water reactor, make money off of it, and get a foothold on the energy links in East Asia," said Mr Cha, who had not been briefed on the Russian proposal.
One diplomat who focuses on Russia issues said Moscow's involvement could help it argue against sanctions placed on it for interventions in Ukraine.
"They may be trying to deal themselves back into the global game," the diplomat said. "'We helped save the world from North Korean nukes, so why the continued sanctions?'"
Mr Cha said that in the past, US officials opposed a major role for Russia in the denuclearisation process due to a longstanding distrust of Moscow.
China, a key player in the negotiations, has also opposed a prominent Russian energy role, though that could appeal to Mr Trump.
"If this is part of a final deal, Trump could be OK with it if it pokes China in the eye," said Mr Cha.
"The Chinese don't want the Russians on the peninsula, so if they're going to be the primary energy supplier, they won't like it."
Russia's offer to North Korea, in late October, came as negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang deadlocked over when North Korea should disclose an inventory of its nuclear programme.
But the tempo of the discussions improved earlier this month with a visit to Washington by Mr Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief and North Korea's lead negotiator in the talks.
In meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Mr Kim told officials North Korea had appointed Mr Kim Hyok Chol as the new counterpart for America's envoy for the talks, Mr Stephen Biegun, said two people familiar with the discussions.
The personnel change was welcomed by the US side, which has struggled for months to secure meetings between Mr Biegun and his previous counterpart, Mr Choi Sun Hee.
Following Mr Pompeo's meetings with Mr Kim Yong Chol, Mr Biegun met with Mr Kim Hyok Chol for the first round of working-level talks between the Trump administration and the North Koreans.