N.Korea "readies missiles', China to help ensure peace

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North Korea has placed surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads in the Yellow Sea, Yonhap news agency reported on Sunday, as the United States and South Korea began military exercises and China said it would try to ensure peace.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told a visiting Chinese delegation that Beijing, North Korea's only major ally which is traditionally reluctant to criticize the reclusive regime, should do more to help.

Yonhap also said North Korea had moved surface-to-air missiles to frontline areas, days after it shelled a tiny South Korean island killing four people, including two soldiers. The North's official KCNA news agency warned of retaliatory action if its territory is violated.

"We will deliver a brutal military blow on any provocation which violates our territorial waters," KCNA said.

Officials from South Korea's Defense Ministry and the joint chiefs said they could not comment on the Yonhap report. "It is impossible to confirm the report as it is classified as military secret," an official said.

The exercises, in waters far south of the disputed maritime boundary, are being held in the face of opposition by China and threats of "consequences" from North Korea.

The chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly will visit China from Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said. Lee told Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who outranks Foreign Minister Yang Jiechie, that Beijing, with its growing international influence, should do more to help ensure peace.

China has not been drawn on taking sides in the conflict and declined to blame North Korea, unlike the United States, for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March.

"We ask that China make a contribution to peace on the Korean peninsula by taking a more fair and responsible position on South-North Korea ties," the presidential Blue House quoted Lee as telling Dai.

"The Chinese side conveyed the message of condolences for the South Korean victims of the Yeonpyeong incident and said it would make efforts to prevent the situation from deteriorating for the sake of peace between the South and North," Lee's spokesman said.

Lee said North Korea's recent attack, coming after the revelation of the North's highly uranium enrichment program, was a grave change in the situation.

"Lee asked that China play a role in North-South ties to match its growing international stature at a time when the Cold War is over and we should be pursuing coexistence and peace in the 21st century," Lee's spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo, said.

Washington says the drill is intended as a deterrent after the worst assault on South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Officials and journalists on the island, Yeonpyeong, were briefly evacuated to bunkers on Sunday, a Reuters witness said. The order was later withdrawn. There has been no disruption of air and shipping routes.

The nuclear-powered carrier USS George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of over 6,000, has joined the exercises and will be accompanied by at least four other US warships, an official from US Forces Korea (USKF) told Reuters.

South Korea has deployed three destroyers, frigates and anti-submarine aircraft, Yonhap news agency reported, adding the exercises were being held far south of the disputed area where the artillery firing took place on Tuesday.

"The drills have started and of course the carrier joined the exercises. But I cannot give any further details," said the USKF official, asking not to be identified.

Lee has told ministers and aides to be ready for further "provocation" by North Korea during the military show of force.

South Korea's marine commander on Saturday vowed "thousand-fold" revenge for the North Korean attack that killed two servicemen and two civilians.

North Korea said that if there had been civilian deaths, they were "very regrettable", but that South Korea should be blamed for using a human shield.

It also said the United States should be blamed for "orchestrating" the whole sequence of events to justify sending an aircraft carrier to join the maritime maneuvers.

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