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North Korea reported ready to fire more missiles

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has deployed more than 10 missiles on its west coast for what appears to be an imminent launch, a South Korean newspaper said on Thursday, two days after the North fired two short-range missiles into the Yellow Sea.

It would be an unprecedented test if the North fired all of the surface-to-ship and ship-to-ship missiles, but intelligence sources quoted by the Chosun Ilbo paper said they thought the North may launch five to seven of them.

The North has forbidden ships to sail in an area in the Yellow Sea until October 15 in preparation for the launch, an intelligence source told the paper.

The North fired two missiles on Tuesday in routine military drills, South Korea’s defence minister said on Wednesday.

“If the North fires a large number of missiles, it would be difficult to see it as routine exercise,” the source was quoted as saying.

A South Korean defence ministry official declined to comment on the report but said the government had no indications of unusual activities in the North.

A senior U.S. nuclear envoy visited the North Korean capital last week in a bid to convince the state to return to a disarmament-for-aid deal and halt plans to restart an ageing nuclear plant that makes bomb-grade plutonium.

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Washington is reviewing the discussions U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill held in Pyongyang to see if it can begin verifying statements the North made about its nuclear programme, an official in Seoul familiar with the talks said.

A U.S. military commander played down any escalation of the threat posed by the North, which recent reports have said conducted engine tests this year at a new missile launch site.

“We have seen no increased movement or military activity in North Korea, nor have we responded in any way with any military posture changes,” Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.

The United States was keeping the area under close observation he said, but declined to comment on the missile reports.

“Hypothetically, if North Korea were to fire off 10 missiles in short order, that would be very unusual,” he said.

North Korea has a history of timing its missile launches at periods of increased tension to show that it is ready to take a hard and defiant line, analysts say.

North Korea fired seven ballistic missiles in July 2006 including a long-range Taepodong-2 off its east coast. Three months later, it conducted a nuclear test.

Reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul and Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo; Editing by Alex Richardson