BEIJING — South Korea warned Friday that it will order airstrikes if North Korea again launches artillery at the South, raising its military posture as Pyongyang reportedly deployed new rockets capable of hitting the South Korean capital.
Appearing before the South Korean parliament, the newly appointed defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said at his confirmation hearing: "We will thoroughly retaliate to ensure that the enemy cannot provoke again."
Kim was named defense minister after a North Korean artillery barrage targeting the island of Yeonpyeong last week that killed two South Korean civilians and two marines.
Although the North and South have long traded threats, tensions on the Korean Peninsula now are at the highest level in decades.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency Friday reported that North Korea had added 100 multiple-launch rockets to its arsenal of about 5,200 capable of hitting the South Korean capital. The agency also reported that South Korea planned to soon begin live-fire artillery exercises near five islands in the Yellow Sea, including Yeonpyeong.
Adding to the uncertainty about the standoff, China, the only power in the region with sway over North Korea, has given no indication that it plans to rein in the regime of Kim Jong-Il.
An opinion column in China Daily, a state newspaper, emphasized Friday that North Korea has in the past repeatedly ignored Chinese officials who voiced strong opposition to Pyongyang staging long-range missile and nuclear tests. "The world," said Sun Ru, a Beijing analyst, "has to understand that (North Korea) makes its security decisions independently."
Last month, Pyongyang unveiled a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant that could be used to help manufacture nuclear weapons. Earlier in the year, a reported North Korean torpedo attack sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors.
While China is the North's main supplier of food and energy, the Chinese leadership has so far done little publicly other than call for talks between the two Koreas and their allies.
Analysts in Beijing express discontent with Pyongyang, and a secret U.S. cable distributed this week by the WikiLeaks website indicated that younger Chinese officials are increasingly frustrated with North Korea's volatility, though Beijing has not significantly shifted its diplomacy toward the North.
"Sometimes North Korea's behavior is not very satisfactory to us — they bring trouble to us, they embarrass us," Su Hao, a prominent analyst at the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, told McClatchy Newspapers this week.
But he said the alternative to supporting Pyongyang was either a completely isolated North Korea that might stage significantly worse provocations, or a regime collapse that brings "a disaster spilling over" China's border.
"I don't think that we can reconsider the relationship," he said.
There are also broader strategic implications, for North Korea acts as a buffer between the mainland and U.S.-allied South Korea, an important factor for Chinese officials who worry that America is trying to contain Beijing's power in the region.
Despite the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which an international investigation blamed on a North Korean torpedo, Chinese President Hu Jintao gave Kim Jong-Il an audience twice in China this year.