SEOUL, South Korea – The United States agreed Saturday to pull its troops out of the South Korean capital as Seoul's (search) new top diplomat said he sees a chance for a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis.
Under a historic plan to end the U.S. presence in the capital dating from the 1950-53 Korean War, about 7,000 U.S. forces and their families will be moved to an expanded facility about 45 miles south of Seoul. The move is to be completed by 2006.
The decision, announced at a meeting of U.S. and South Korean officials in Honolulu, is part of U.S. efforts to streamline and modernize its forces on the divided peninsula and ease tensions caused by having a large U.S. military base in the middle of South Korea's main city.
Residents have long complained that the base occupies prime real estate and contributes to the city's chronic traffic congestion. Younger generations also see the foreign military presence in their capital as a slight to national pride.
Taking U.S. forces out of the capital also removes them from the front lines of a potential North Korean attack.
The move comes amid efforts to restart six-nation talks on ending the 16-month standoff over North Korea's nuclear programs. A first round -- involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas -- ended in August without much progress.
North Korea warns that every delay in the negotiations gives it more time to bolster its "nuclear deterrent."
South Korea's new foreign minister said Saturday that the atmosphere was finally "maturing" for a new round, predicting the six countries would try to find a "lead in resolving the issue" this year.
"North Korea is expressing its will to abandon nuclear development and showing positive signs toward participating in talks," Ban Ki-moon (search) said.
Ban added that he would work closely with other countries taking part in the discussions to find a breakthrough in resolving the nuclear stalemate.
The nuclear dispute flared in October 2002 when U.S. officials accused North Korea of running a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 deal requiring the North to freeze its nuclear facilities.
North Korea has said it will freeze its nuclear programs as a first step in talks if Washington removes the communist country from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism and provides economic aid. The United States says North Korea must first dismantle its nuclear programs before receiving any concessions.
Separately, North Korea accused South Korea on Saturday of illegally deploying artillery inside the Demilitarized Zone (search), the buffer area created at the end of the war to keep opposing armies apart. Under a cease-fire accord, only rifles and other small arms are allowed inside the DMZ.
"The South Korean military authorities should stop acting rashly, clearly mindful of the grave consequences to be entailed by such military provocations," the North's official KCNA news agency said.
The report provided no details of the weapons, and South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Kim Ki-boem rejected the accusation as a "lie."
The U.S. military has said the move out of Seoul will not diminish its strength in South Korea. Officials note they plan to spend $11 billion over the next four years to modernize forces.
The United States keeps 37,000 troops in South Korea -- a legacy of the war, which ended in an uneasy armistice, not a peace treaty.
The war pitted South Korea and a U.S.-led United Nations force against North Korea, which was backed by Chinese ground troops and Soviet aid.