Seoul: North Korea threatened war on Sunday after South Korea warned of launching a pre-emptive strike if the North was preparing a nuclear attack — the latest salvo in a battle of rhetoric despite signs of improved cooperation across the militarised frontier.

The North's military said it would take prompt and decisive military action against any South Korean attempt to violate North Korea's dignity and sovereignty and would blow up major targets in the South, including its command centre.

"Our revolutionary armed forces will regard the scenario for ‘pre-emptive strike,' which the South Korean puppet authorities adopted as a ‘state policy,' as an open declaration of war," the General Staff of the Korean People's Army said in a statement carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.

The North's warning came in response to the South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young's remarks last week that the South should launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea if there was a clear indication the country was preparing a nuclear attack.

A South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae dismissed the North's statement yesterday as a predictable reaction.

Kim made similar remarks in 2008 when he was chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, prompting North Korea to threaten South Korea with destruction.

Analysts in South Korea said the North's latest statement reflected its intolerance of any challenge to its own security and the authoritarian regime leader Kim Jong Il but that the war of words was unlikely to derail attempts to improve relations.

"The North has sent a clear message that it was ready for cooperation with South Korea, but it won't tolerate it if South Korea touches on the prestige of its leader or its system," said analyst Paik Hak-soon of the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.

Communist regime

The North's isolated communist regime has reached out to the US and South Korea in recent months in what could be an attempt to ease some of the pressure of UN sanctions imposed on the North after it conducted a nuclear test last year, its second to date.

North Korea quit international talks on ending its nuclear programmes in April last year, but has indicated its willingness to return to international disarmament negotiations if the sanctions are lifted.

In a sign of the conflicting signals from Pyongyang, the North's military renewed in yesterday's statement the country's commitment to improve inter-Korean relations.