Ahn Young-joon, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea welcomed the new year Saturday with a call 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 communist North, which has conducted two nuclear tests since 2006, also said its military is ready for "prompt, merciless and annihilatory action" against its enemies.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said the editorial carried in the official Korean Central News Agency, even with its tough rhetoric, showed the North's interest in resuming talks with the South.
The annual holiday message is scrutinized by officials and analysts in neighboring countries for policy clues. This year, it received special attention after the North's Nov. 23 artillery shelling of a South Korean island near the countries' disputed western sea border, the first attack on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War.
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 South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak, dressed in traditional Korean clothes, said in a televised New Year's address he would work toward peace. "I am confident that we will be able to establish peace on the Korean peninsula and continue sustained economic growth," he said.
North Korea said in its editorial that confrontation between the Koreas should be quickly defused.
"The danger of war should be removed and peace safeguarded in the Korean peninsula," said the message, which was also read by a North Korean anchorwoman in a state television broadcast monitored in Seoul. "If a war breaks out on this land, it will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust."
The message shows the North wants to rejoin international nuclear disarmament talks, said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Dongguk University, noting there was no criticism of the United States, which the North often lashes out at.
The Korean peninsula remains technically in a state of war because the 1950s conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
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. Recently, it has 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. The North is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half-dozen atomic bombs.
In the North Korean capital, authoritarian leader Kim Jong Il enjoyed a concert on New Year's Eve with his youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un. The elder Kim also attended a tank division training session, according to a statement Friday by the North's official news agency.
On Saturday, dozens of well-dressed citizens and soldiers paid respect to the country's late dynastic founder Kim Il Sung. After offering bouquets of flowers, they bowed solemnly and saluted a huge bronze statue of Kim standing on a hill overlooking the city, according to footage provided by Associated Press Television News in Pyongyang. Children were filmed posing for photos on model horses and families were seen walking along streets beneath brightly colored New Year's posters.
"Under the leadership of the great leader Kim Jong Il, the future of Korea will be brighter," said Kim Hye Gyong, a Pyongyang citizen interviewed by APTN. "Today I greet new year 2011 with such happy feelings."
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