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NKorea warns of 'nuclear holocaust'

North Korea has welcomed the new year with a push for better ties with rival South Korea, warning that war "will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust".

Despite calls in its annual New Year's message for a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons, the North, which has conducted two nuclear tests since 2006, also said its military was ready for "prompt, merciless and annihilatory action" against its enemies.

The North's holiday message - scrutinised by officials and analysts in neighbouring countries for policy clues - comes in the wake of its November 23 artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island near the countries' disputed western sea border. That barrage, which followed an alleged North Korean torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March, sent tensions between the Koreas soaring and fuelled fears of war during the last weeks of 2010.

In a joint editorial in three newspapers, carried in the official Korean Central News Agency, the North said confrontation between the two Koreas should be quickly defused and called for a push to improve Korean relations.

"The danger of war should be removed and peace safeguarded in the Korean peninsula," said the message, which was also emphatically read by a North Korean anchorwoman, wearing traditional Korean dress, in a state television broadcast monitored in Seoul. "If a war breaks out on this land, it will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust."

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said its officials were analysing the North's message.

Four South Koreans, including two civilians, were killed in the November shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which North Korea carried out after warning Seoul against conducting live-fire drills there. The attack was the first on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The South Korean government has strengthened security and deployed additional troops and weaponry to Yeonpyeong, which lies just seven miles from North Korean shores.

North Korea does not recognise the maritime border drawn by the UN in 1953, and it claims the waters around the island as its own. The Korean peninsula remains technically in a state of war because the conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, dressed in traditional Korean clothes, told his people he was full of hope for 2011. "I am confident that we will be able to establish peace on the Korean peninsula and continue sustained economic growth," he said in a videotaped message.

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