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TOKYO — Despite increasingly belligerent threats to respond swiftly and strongly to military attacks, analysts say there is one thing both North Korea and South Korea want to avoid: an escalation into war.

The latest promise to retaliate with violence came Friday, when South Korea’s defense minister-to-be said during a confirmation hearing that he supports airstrikes against North Korea in the case of future provocations from the communist country.

“In case the enemy attacks our territory and people again, we will thoroughly retaliate to ensure that the enemy cannot provoke again,” Kim Kwan-jin said, according to The Associated Press.

The hearing was a formality because South Korea’s National Assembly does not have the power to reject South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s appointment.

Kim’s comments came 10 days after North Korea bombarded South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island near the maritime border, killing two marines and two civilians — the first North Korean attack against civilians since the Korean War. South Korea responded by firing 80 rounds, less than half of the 170 fired by North Korea.

It was the second deadly provocation from the North this year.

In March, a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, although North Korea has denied involvement in the incident. The South launched a series of military exercises, some with U.S. participation, intended to show its military strength following the attack.

John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said South Korea is using “textbook posturing” to deter another attack by emphasizing that it is tough and firm. But it’s hard to predict how the South would respond to another attack. The country usually errs on the side of restraint, he said.

“I think they’re trying to send a very clear signal to North Korea: Don’t push us again,” Delury said. “For all of the criticism of the initial South Korean response that it was too weak, in the end I think people don’t want another hot conflict. I think the strategy is to rattle the sabers a bit to prevent another incident.”

Meanwhile, Yonhap News reported Friday that North Korea recently added multiple-launch rockets that are capable of hitting Seoul, located about 31 miles from the border. The report was based on comments from an unnamed South Korean military source who said the North now has 5,200 multiple-launch rockets. A spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff would not comment on the accuracy of the report because of the sensitivity of the information.

Experts say it is a question of when — not if — North Korea will launch another attack. But those experts doubt the situation will escalate into full-scale war.

“I think that it’s certainly possible, but I think that what North Korea wants, as well as South Korea, is to contain this,” said Bruce Bechtol, author of “Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security” and an associate professor of political science at Angelo State University in Texas.

He said North Korea typically launches small, surprise attacks that can be contained — not ones that are likely to escalate.

Delury said both Koreas want to avoid war, and North Korea’s leaders have a particular interest in avoiding conflict — they know the first people to be hit in a full-scale fight would be the elites.

But South Korea might respond more aggressively to future provocations, he said.

“There’s certainly some feeling here that the South Korean military didn’t hit back hard enough, especially coming on the heels of losing the Cheonan,” he said. “There could be some inclination to get involved in another scuffle where South Korea can get a better punch in.”

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

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