SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's inexperienced young leader has taken his first big step on the international stage by doing a deal with the United States little more than two months after the death of his father in a move that will help establish his credibility.
The reclusive state agreed to suspend nuclear tests, halt long-range missile launches and enrichment of uranium at a nuclear facility and allow back nuclear inspectors, completing a key piece of business left unfinished by the death in December of Kim Jong-il who ruled the impoverished state for 17 years.
Wednesday's announcement by Washington and Pyongyang will likely see aid for disarmament talks resume.
But few believe Kim Jong-un, thought to be in his late 20s, has any intention of abandoning the nuclear aspirations that came to define his father's rule and were the one bit of leverage he had with the outside world, in particular the United States.
"In the long run, they hope to make a deal about arms restriction, as opposed to disarmament," said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul.
"They are willing to freeze their nuclear program, if they are paid a hefty fee, and explicitly or implicitly allowed to keep some stockpiles of plutonium and/or nuclear devices."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dubbed the decision to a "modest first step."
The deal with Washington, that also involved consultations with China, the North's main backer, and Russia, continues a pattern by Pyongyang of playing off regional powers and a policy of seeking to isolate South Korea from its ally in Washington.
The deal came at the height of joint military drills by U.S. and South Korean forces aimed at deterring aggression by the North, a regular occasion for Pyongyang to unleash vitriolic rhetoric against Washington.
On Saturday, the North called the United States "sworn enemy" and said it would fight a "sacred war," just as negotiators from the two sides were wrapping up discussions in the capital of Pyongyang's only powerful ally, China.
"Despite all the criticism directed at them, a positive relationship with the United States has served a very material purpose for the North for the survival of its regime and in times of instability," said Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University.
South Korean media said that Seoul appeared to have become alienated from its close ally and questioned how committed Washington still was to a demand that relations between the two Koreas, who remain technically at war, improve before broader regional talks can resume.
"The diplomatic loser here is of course (South Korean) President Lee Myung-bak," said John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul. "Inter-Korean issues have been cleanly separated from nuclear negotiations."
Although the agreement between Pyongyang and Washington included some food aid, the driving factor was North Korea's long-standing goal to "normalize" relations with the United States and to establish Kim Jong-un's credibility as head of the family dynasty that has led North Korea since it was founded.
"I don't think the need for food aid is driving this. In fact, I suspect food aid is a decoy," said Delury. The North has suffered chronic food shortages for two decades.
The agreement calls for the U.S. shipment of 240,000 tonnes of "nutritional assistance" to the North, which excludes rice or other staples that Washington and Seoul believe could be diverted away from needy civilians and stored for troops.
Far from experiencing instability or policy paralysis that some North Korea watchers had expected in the wake of Kim Jong-il's death, the young leader, aided by a coterie of experienced advisors including his father's chief nuclear negotiator, appears to have cemented his position.
"Succession has occurred quickly and smoothly, and it is now back to business as usual," added Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul.
"In fact, foreign policy is moving more smoothly than compared to the first succession in 1994. And compared to other dictatorships, this one appears very stable."
Editing by David Chance and Jonathan Thatcher