SEOUL, South Korea – The United States wants to withdraw a third of its 37,000 troops from South Korea by the end of next year, U.S. and South Korean officials said Monday as the two countries discussed plans for repositioning soldiers along the Cold War's last frontier.
The withdrawal would be the first major troop cut on the Korean Peninsula since the early 1990s, when the two allies agreed to remove 7,000 U.S. troops.
The planned U.S. troop reduction is seen as part of Washington's global effort to realign its forces so they can better respond to emergencies worldwide.
Last week, U.S. and German officials said the United States has yet to complete plans for any troop withdrawals from Germany and is still consulting with allies over its intention to fundamentally rearrange American forces around the world.
The U.S. proposal for South Korea came Sunday as both sides prepared to open the two-day Future of the Alliance talks Monday, according to a statement released by U.S. Forces Korea (search). The statement confirmed comments made earlier Monday by Kim Sook, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American bureau.
According to Kim, the U.S. side told the South Koreans the proposal will not affect U.S. soldiers' ability to defend South Korea because of more modern weapons systems it plans to bring in. Washington has promised to spend $11 billion in the next five years to upgrade its firepower in the region.
Washington proposed withdrawing 12,500 U.S. troops over 2004-05 and intends for the figure to include about 3,600 already slated to be redeployed later this year from South Korea to Iraq, the U.S. statement said.
"Details are being worked out as the process of consultation with the Republic of Korea continues," the statement said.
The U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless, suggested the pullout be completed by December 2005, Kim said.
Kim said officials at the South Korean National Security Council, Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry would review the proposal before giving a response: "We'll formulate a position and then notify the United States."
He said the issue was unlikely to be discussed again during the talks, which end Tuesday. The talks are supposed to focus on a separate plan to move U.S. troops farther south, away from the Demilitarized Zone (search) between North and South Korea.
Troop levels are a prickly issue in South Korea, where many still have painful memories of the communist North Korean invasion that triggered the 1950-53 Korean War.
The talks follow a shift in Seoul toward a more liberal government following recent elections. They also come amid a dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons development.
Washington has kept troops here since the Korean War (search), in part to help Seoul deter potential aggression from the North. The Korean War ended without a peace treaty, and the two sides are still technically at war.
The talks will focus mainly on a U.S. plan to reposition most of its forces currently stationed near the North Korean border to points south of the South Korean capital, Seoul.
About 7,000 U.S. forces and their families would also move from the sprawling Yongsan Base (search) in downtown Seoul to an expanded facility south of the capital by 2006.
South Korea announced last week that the United States had floated the idea of a major troop withdrawal from the peninsula, but officials did not give a timeline for the pullout.
The Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified South Korean official as saying Seoul proposed that any 12,500-troop pullout happen gradually through 2013.
The proposed changes — along with anti-American sentiment among many young South Koreans — has triggered concern among some that liberal President Roh Moo-hyun (search), who recently won a majority in parliament, may be endangering his country's alliance with the United States.
Roh has said his country should assume a greater role in its own defense, but on Sunday he pledged his government would continue to "properly nurture the South Korea-U.S. alliance."
"The concepts of self-defense and an alliance can complement each other," he said in a speech honoring the country's war dead.