PANMUNJOM, Korea – The U.S. military is on track to pull almost all its troops from their last outpost on the tense border with North Korea (search) by October, a U.S. Army officer said Wednesday, amid discord over relocation plans.
The two allies were also eyeing more negotiations over a U.S. troop withdrawal proposal that would be the largest reduction of American forces on the divided Korean Peninsula in three decades.
The plans signal a new test for a key Asian alliance that has helped underpin U.S. policy in the region since the 1950-53 Korean War (search), when U.S. soldiers helped repel a North Korean invasion.
Among the unresolved issues is how much land would be needed for consolidating U.S. troops from scattered camps near the North Korean border at expanded bases farther south.
The countries also said more talks were needed on a sensitive U.S. proposal to withdraw one third of the 37,000 American troops stationed in South Korea by the end of next year.
Some in South Korea see the withdrawal plan as too sudden, possibly being interpreted as a sign of weakness by North Korea as it wrangles with its neighbors over its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea, which routinely calls for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the South, has so far been silent on the proposal to remove 12,500 troops — the largest cut since the 1970s.
Then-President Richard Nixon pulled out about 20,000 soldiers as a measure of detente with Moscow and Beijing, North Korea's traditional allies.
But North Korea has blasted a separate plan to redeploy 3,500 U.S. troops from South Korea to Iraq this summer, saying it clears the way for Washington to bolster its military muscle with more high-tech weaponry.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon tried to quell security concerns Wednesday, saying Seoul would bolster the military deterrent against North Korea, no matter what changes are made.
"Under no circumstances should the redeployment lead toward minimizing the joint South Korea-U.S. defense capability, but instead lead toward strengthening it," Ban said.
Along the heavily armed North Korean border, U.S. military officials have noticed no changes in the daily regimen of the Korean People's Army.
Still on track are U.S. plans to reduce its presence around Panmunjom, a truce village in the middle of the no man's land dividing North and South Korea. By October, all but a handful of American soldiers are to be removed, transferring most border patrol duties to South Korea.
U.S. Army Capt. Ryan Roberts said the handover was proceeding smoothly, with the two sides negotiating which buildings to hand over to South Korea first.
The U.S. military also is training South Korean soldiers there in the use of South Korean firearms and military hardware. South Korean troops currently attached to U.S. units use mainly U.S. equipment, Roberts said.
About 550 South Korean and U.S. troops operate in the Panmunjom area now. South Koreans account for about 65 percent of the force, but that figure will jump to 93 percent after the Oct. 31 handover. After that date, U.S. forces will comprise just 7 percent.
The American pullout is part of the unresolved plan to consolidate U.S. troops at sites south of Seoul.
Talks on the issue ended Tuesday in disagreement over a U.S. request for 2,916 acres, about 300 acres more than South Korea was willing to set aside for the expanded bases.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless, who led the U.S. delegation, was quoted as saying in an interview with South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper that he was "frustrated" the small difference was a bone of contention.
Kim Sook, in charge of North American affairs at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, said Seoul hoped for another meeting on the matter later this month or in early July. He said South Korea wanted agreement by year's end.