BEIJING North Korea's willingness to cut a surprise deal with the United States on the future of its nuclear program does not signal any policy shift by the reclusive state's young new leader, a source with links to both Pyongyang and Beijing said.
The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, also warned against applying pressure similar to sanctions on Iran to get it to jettison its nuclear ambitions, saying any perceived insincerity from Washington would quickly drive Pyongyang from the table.
Just weeks after Kim Jong-un succeeded his father, North Korea agreed with the United States last week to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests, uranium enrichment at a nuclear facility, and to allow nuclear inspectors back. At the same time Washington pledged to resume food aid.
Despite the agreement, the source told Reuters not to read too much into it. "There has been no change (in policy). The door has always been open" from Pyongyang's perspective, he said. The source has correctly predicted events in the past, telling Reuters about the North's first nuclear test in 2006 before it took place.
The secretive state still clings to the teachings of Kim's grandfather, the late Kim Il-sung, whose ultimate goals include a peace treaty, the removal of nuclear weapons from both Koreas, and diplomatic recognition from Washington, he said.
The United States, which has nearly 30,000 troops in the South, says it has no nuclear weapons on the peninsula.
From Pyongyang's perspective, last week's deal was possible because it believed that the United States was the one that returned to the table willing to make concessions.
"In the past, either the United States did not trust North Korea or deliberately made North Korea an enemy. The United States straightened out its thinking this time," the source told Reuters, explaining the North Korean view.
The two sides have held nuclear talks on-and-off for nearly two decades, but relations hit a low in 2009 when the North conducted a second nuclear test and a long-range missile launch. Washington imposed sanctions, and Pyongyang walked out of regional denuclearization talks.
'ONE COUNTRY, TWO GOVERNMENTS'
The latest deal came about two months after Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, inherited the leadership to become the third member of his family to rule the state. North Korea was founded after World War Two by Kim Il-sung, whose own son Kim Jong-il ruled for 17 years before his death in December.
The U.S.-North Korea deal could pave the way for the resumption of long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.
The breakthrough has been met with guarded optimism by analysts and diplomats who noted that efforts to defuse tensions on the divided Korean peninsula had seen many false dawns. They also doubt the North will ever give up their nuclear card, which Pyongyang sees as the ultimate deterrent and bargaining chip.
Asked why the unpredictable North repeatedly reneged on past deals, the source defended Pyongyang, saying denuclearization is "an end for the United States, but just a means for North Korea" to achieve its ultimate objective, survival.
"It is not fair to wholly blame North Korea," he said.
Pyongyang's suspicions of Washington run deep. In 2001 then U.S. president George W. Bush branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and Iran. Pyongyang fears it could be the next after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the continuing pressure on Iran.
It all could unravel swiftly, the source added.
"If the United States stops taking steps and treats North Korea as a foe instead of a friend, North Korea will be forced to deviate," he said.
The Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice. Pyongyang wants a peace treaty to formally bring an end to that technical state of war, but it ultimately prefers a "one country, two governments" model that allows both to co-exist in a form of commonwealth, he said.
Progress towards such an end would be slow. The source said North Korea will not deal with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak because it regarded him as "hostile." Lee's mandatory single five-year term ends next year.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)