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North Korea threatening a nuclear strike on South

South Korea's army fires live rounds during an exercise in Pocheon, 20 miles from the border with the North (AP)
South Korea's army fires live rounds during an exercise in Pocheon, 20 miles from the border with the North (AP)
Smoke rises from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010.
North and South Korea have stepped up their rhetoric
South Korean Army soldiers check on the front line of the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas (AP)
Houses are burned on South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto the populated South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, military officials said, setting buildings on fire and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
A South Korean man watches a TV screen showing smoking from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border of North Korea, at Seoul train station Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto the populated South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, military officials said, setting buildings on fire and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
FILE FILE In this photo taken Friday, Aug. 2, 2010, South Korean Marines self-propelled artillery K-9 howitzers fire during a military drill against possible attacks from North Korea on Baengnyeong Island, South Korea. North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto the populated South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010, military officials said, setting buildings on fire and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Yonhap, Suh Myung-gon) KOREA OUT
People and soldiers arrive from Yeongpyeong Island at Incheon port, west of Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto the populated South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, military officials said, setting buildings on fire and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Smoke rises from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea fired artillery barrages onto the South Korean island near their disputed border Tuesday, setting buildings alight and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Smoke rises from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea fired artillery barrages onto the South Korean island near their disputed border Tuesday, setting buildings alight and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
South Korean villagers watch smoke from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea fired artillery barrages onto the South Korean island near their disputed border Tuesday, setting buildings alight and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Pillars of smoke billow from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border with North Korea (AP)
People watch a TV screen at Seoul train station showing smoke from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island (AP)
North Korea's leader Kim Jong II will be succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un (AP)

Tensions on the Korean peninsula were at their most dangerous level since the 1950-53 war yesterday when North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons in a “holy war” against its neighbour after South Korean tanks, jets and artillery carried out one of the largest live-fire drills in history close to the border.

The military exercise at Pocheon, just south of the demilitarised zone, was the third such show of force this week by South Korea.

Multiple rocket-launchers, dozens of tanks and hundreds of troops joined the drills, which the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, insisted were necessary for self-defence, following two deadly attacks this year.

Last month two civilians and two marines were killed by a North Korean barrage on Yeonpyeong island following a live-fire drill in disputed territory. In March 46 sailors died when the South Korean naval ship Cheonan was sunk, apparently by an enemy torpedo.

“We had believed patience would ensure peace on this land, but that was not the case,” Lee told troops yesterday. He earlier warned that he was ready to order a “merciless counterattack” if |further provoked.

North Korea's armed forces minister Kim Yong-chun also |lifted the pitch of the sabre-rattling. “To counter the enemy's |intentional drive to push the situation to the brink of war, our|revolutionary forces are making preparations to begin a holy war at any moment necessary based on nuclear deterrent,” North Korea's KCNA news agency quoted him telling a rally in |Pyongyang.

Efforts to defuse the crisis have not been helped by divisions among the other major players in the region. Russia has proposed sending a special United Nations envoy to the region and China has called for restraint and expressed support for a fresh round of six-party denuclearisation talks.

But Japan and the United States have backed the robust stance taken by Seoul, saying North Korea has not yet done enough to deserve new negotiations.

Last weekend the American ambassador to the United |Nations proposed a Security Council statement condemning Pyongyang, but it was blocked by China.

US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks have revealed that senior Chinese foreign ministry |officials have privately expressed frustration with Pyongyang's |behaviour.

China is the main supplier of food and fuel to its isolated neighbour, but the extent of its influence over North Korea is unclear.

The topic will be discussed when US President Barack Obama meets his Chinese counterpart at a summit on January 19.

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