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Russian officials made a secret proposal to North Korea last fall aimed at resolving deadlocked negotiations with President Donald Trump's administration over its nuclear weapons program, said U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.

In exchange for North Korea dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Russia 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 flash points from the Middle East to South Asia to Latin America. Its latest bid is expected to unsettle Chinese and U.S. officials wary of granting Moscow an economic foothold on the Korean Peninsula.

As a part of the deal, the Russian government would operate the plant and transfer all byproducts and waste back to Russia, reducing the risk that North Korea uses 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 Victor Cha, a former White House staff member whom the Trump administration considered nominating last year to serve as U.S. 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," Cha said.

After months of delays and canceled meetings, talks between the United States and North Korea have gained new momentum with the announcement of a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un planned for late February.

Trump has been increasingly upbeat about another round of talks and 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," Trump said this month. "I'm going to not go any further than that. I'm just going to say it's very special."

The State Department, White House, CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the 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 affected 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 denuclearize, said people familiar with the discussions.

The CIA has assessed that the Russian power plant would produce a very limited amount of weaponizable byproduct, said one official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive information.

Diplomats and analysts familiar with Russia's actions said Moscow has a longtime interest in creating an energy link between Siberia and East Asia, as well as being viewed as a problem-solver for geopolitical crises.

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?'"

In the past, U.S. officials have opposed a major role for Russia in the denuclearization process due to a longtime distrust of Moscow, Cha said. China, a key player in the negotiations, has also opposed a prominent Russian energy role, though that could appeal to Trump.

"If this is part of a final deal, Trump could be OK with it if it pokes China in the eye," said 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."

A Section on 01/30/2019

Print Headline: U.S. says Russia offered N. Korea nuke-plant deal

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