The former chief of US intelligence warned Sunday that South Korea has lost its patience with provocations by North Korea and "will be taking military action."
Retired admiral Dennis Blair, who was director of national intelligence until May, said he did not think that hostilities would escalate into a larger war with artillery attacks on Seoul because North Korea knows it would lose.
"So I don't think a war is going to start but I think there is going to be a military confrontation at lower levels rather than simply accepting these, this North Korean aggression, and going and negotiating," he said on CNN's State of the Union.
Blair said the North had gone beyond its usual pattern of brinkmanship with an artillery barrage on a South Korean island that killed four people November 23, and the sinking in May of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 sailors.
"So South Korea is beginning to lose patience with the North, which there was a great deal of patience," said Blair, who just returned from South Korea.
Asked what that meant, the retired admiral said, "It means they will be taking military action against North Korea."
His comments came as South Korea was preparing to go ahead with live fire drills off its coasts, but not near the contested maritime border with the North in the Yellow Sea.
North Korea's artillery attack on the island of Yeonpyeong was the first on a civilian area since the end of the Korean war in 1953.
Amid a flurry of diplomatic attempts to defuse regional tension, Beijing has called for an emergency meeting between chief delegates to long-stalled six-party talks on the North's nuclear disarmament.
The North's leader Kim Jong-Il told Dao Bingguo, a visiting senior Beijing official, that Pyongyang was willing to rejoin the talks if other neighbors also agree to come forward, Yonhap news agency reported, citing a senior diplomatic source in Seoul.
But Blair suggested that South Korean leaders would continue to take a tough line against Pyongyang, and that such an approach would have wide popular support.
"In fact, a South Korean government who does not react would not be able to survive there," he said.
He said China had less influence on North Korea than some believe because of its fear of instability on its border, which the North "can sort of turn on any time they want."
"That being said, China's policy is not commensurate with the overall stature and growth of China," he said. "They still have a policy of the weak, which is, 'Don't want anything to happen in North Korea, no instability there. Let's just keep things divided, a divided peninsula.'"
Instead, China should talk with the United States and South Korea about the future of Korea, he said, saying a united peninsula free of nuclear weapons and that did not threaten China was possible.
Blair also suggested in the interview that the administration of President Barack Obama had been distracted by its focus on the Middle East.
"And I think these events in East Asia have made us realize that there are big United States interests out there and we are going to have to provide steady leadership in more than one region of the world," he said.