SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea on Saturday 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 - scrutinized by officials and analysts in neighboring countries for policy clues - comes in the wake of its Nov. 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 fueled fears of war during the last weeks of 2010.
In the North's editorial, carried in the official state press, it 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," the message said. "If a war breaks out on this land, it will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust."
But the message also indicated that the North's military would continue to prepare itself for fighting.
"The entire army should conduct intense combat training in an atmosphere of actual battle as required by the tense situation so as to reliably prepare all the officers and men," the North said.
The military "will not in the least pardon those who impair our absolute dignity and socialist system even a bit, and violate our airspace, territory and waters even an inch, but discharge at any cost the historic mission it has assumed on behalf of the country and the nation with matchless arms."
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 (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores.
North Korea does not recognize the maritime border drawn by the U.N. 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.
In the North's New Year's message, meanwhile, Pyongyang repeated its vow to "launch an all-out, vigorous offensive" to build a prosperous country by 2012. That year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the revered guerrilla fighter-turned-political leader who founded the communist state in 1948 and was the father of current leader, Kim Jong Il.
That impending anniversary has South Korean leaders worried that the North's push for prosperity could involve more aggression against the South.
President Lee said Wednesday that diplomats must persuade the North to abandon its nuclear aspirations before 2012. A South Korean Foreign Ministry-affiliated think tank, the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, warned in a recent report that North Korea could be planning another nuclear test for next year.
The North's New Year's editorial said the North "is consistent in its stand and will to achieve peace in Northeast Asia and denuclearization of the whole of the Korean peninsula," the editorial said.
Six-nation talks on ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program have been stalled for nearly two years.
The North has previously used aggression to force negotiations and has recently said it is willing to return to the talks. Washington and Seoul, however, are insisting that the North make progress on past disarmament commitments before negotiations can resume.
North Korea also stoked new worries about its nuclear program in November when it revealed a uranium enrichment facility - which could give it a second way to make atomic bombs. North Korea is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half-dozen atomic bombs.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)