BEIJING // With anti-North Korea protesters continuing to take to the streets, the South Korean president yesterday warned his country would hit back hard in any future confrontation with Pyongyang.
Seoul yesterday strengthened its artillery batteries on a front-line island as Lee Myung-bak admitted his country had "tolerated provocations by the North time and again" but in future would make North Korea pay "a dear price".
Mr Lee was responding to public anger over what many see as a weak response by South Korea to the shelling by North Korea last week of Yeonpyeong island, in which four people died.
Placard-wielding protesters gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul calling on Beijing to rein in its ally North Korea, while in a separate gathering in the South Korean capital, demonstrators smashed watermelons representing the heads of the North Korean president, Kim Jong-il, and his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, Agence France-Presse reported.
In a televised address, Mr Lee said he understood the public was "greatly disappointed with how we responded" to the barrage from North Korea, which he described as "a crime against humanity".
He added "prolonged endurance and tolerance" only led to "more serious provocations" and said last week's events were "different and unprecedented", being the first time North Korea had made "a direct attack" on South Korean territory since the end of the Korean war".
"Only courage that defies retreat under any threat or provocation will bring about genuine peace," he said.
"If the North commits any additional provocations against the South, we will make sure that it pays a dear price without fail."
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the South Korean military yesterday deployed extra K-9 howitzers on Yeonpyeong, although plans to hold live-firing exercises on the island today were cancelled.
The country's military has asked for a budget increase to defend Yeonpyeong and four other islands close to North Korea.
As diplomatic efforts to stem the crisis intensified, the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, said he hoped to meet Mr Lee in Japan in mid-December for talks on North Korea and other issues, his comments coming a day after China proposed emergency six-party talks to calm tensions.
South Korea's vice foreign minister, Min Dong-seok, yesterday indicated Seoul would not take up China's offer to stage emergency talks, saying that first North Korea should make a "clear apology and a pledge against recurrence".
Echoing this view, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Adm Mike Mullen, told CNN: "We shouldn't be rewarding bad behaviour here," while Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, reportedly said he did not think the Chinese proposal would be accepted immediately.
Their comments came as five US navy vessels joined frigates, support ships, patrol vessels, destroyers and anti-submarine aircraft from the South Korean military on the second of four days of naval exercises in the Yellow Sea.
North Korea has condemned the exercises as a provocation and, yesterday, the Communist party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, continued Pyongyang's uncompromising recent rhetoric, saying "we don't want a war, but never are afraid of one".
With threats escalating, Brian Bridges, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who has written numerous articles and a book on the Korean peninsula, said the situation was "more serious" than when the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan sank in March with the loss of 46 lives. That incident was been blamed on Pyongyang, although it has denied involvement.
Given the mood in South Korea, Mr Bridges said Mr Lee had "not much choice" but to take a tougher line. Yet despite the hardline rhetoric, South Korea was unlikely to strike North Korea with enough force to risk "an all-out war", he said.
Instead, it might hit back more quickly and with greater force than a week ago "to match or exceed what the North Koreans do, but not take it to any significantly higher level".
Pyongyang's recent comments regretting the death of civilians from its shellfire indicated that it too "was willing to rethink" the situation, he added.