SEOUL, South Korea - The United States agreed Thursday to dismantle its bases and withdraw American troops from positions they have occupied for decades near the tense Demilitarized Zone separating South Korea from communist North Korea.
The troops will eventually be moved to "hub bases" at least 75 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, according to a joint statement after two days of talks between U.S. and South Korean officials. Even after the redeployment, however, U.S. troops will continue to train north of Seoul and close to the DMZ, the statement said.
The redeployment will remove U.S. military bases from the Korean front line for the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Plans for the redeployment were announced amid high tensions caused by an international standoff over North Korea's suspected developments of nuclear weapons.
Officials gave no timetable for the withdrawal, reflecting persistent South Korean worries that any reductions would put it at greater risk of a North Korean attack. Most troops at the U.S. headquarters in the South Korean capital Seoul, 37 miles south of the border, will also be moved south.
Continuing U.S. military exercises near the DMZ "will mean that U.S. troops will continue to play the role of a tripwire to deter war," said South Korean Assistant Defense Minister for Policy Lt. Gen. Cha Young-koo, who led the South Korean side in talks with the Americans, led by U.S. Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for East Asia Richard Lawless.
In April, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. troops stationed near the Korean DMZ could be shifted south, moved to other countries in the region or even brought home under a global realignment of U.S. troops. As part of that realignment, the United States has also announced it is removing most of its 5,000 troops from Saudi Arabia.
In Rumsfeld's view, the Cold War-era logic of having American troops near the DMZ, where they are within easy range of North Korea's heavy artillery forces, no longer makes sense. The relatively small number of U.S. ground forces there can provide a more effective deterrent to North Korean aggression, he believes, if they are positioned farther south.
Rumsfeld also wants to give the U.S. forces in Korea the flexibility to train for missions elsewhere in the region. U.S. officials have been discussing these issues with the South Koreans for months, as he studies U.S. troop repositioning possibilities elsewhere in the world.
Some have argued that the United States should not pull troops away from the border area unless the North Koreans reciprocate, but Rumsfeld believes the U.S. moves should be made regardless because they strengthen the U.S. defense situation, not weaken it.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has said the withdrawal of U.S. troops should be a bargaining chip in any talks with North Korea on reducing its massive troop deployment along the border.
For half a century, the U.S. presence near the DMZ has symbolized the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and Washington's commitment to deterring hostilities on the divided peninsula.
The Korean border remains the world's most heavily armed. Most of the South's 650,000-strong military and the North's 1.1-million strong armed forces, the world's fifth largest, are deployed near the 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, which is guarded on both sides by barbed wire fences, mind fields and tank traps.
Most of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are stationed between the DMZ and Seoul, which is also within range of North Korean artillery.
The two sides will first move U.S. troops from about 15 bases near the DMZ to two major bases, Camp Casey and Camp Red Cloud, north of Seoul. That process could begin as early as this year.
In a second phase, the troops will move to "key hubs south of the Han River," which bisects Seoul, the statement said.
The two sides also agreed to relocate further south most of the estimated 7,000 troops from the sprawling 8th U.S. Army headquarters in downtown Seoul, though the headquarters itself will remain in the capital.
City residents complain that the base occupies prime real estate and worsens the city's chronic traffic congestion. Younger generations also see the foreign military presence in their capital a slight to national pride.
Rumsfeld's comments in April had created uneasiness in South Korea, which worries that reductions would put it at greater risk of a North Korean attack.
President Bush and Roh met in May, and agreed that South Korea's growing economy allows the country to play a bigger military role in defending itself.
"When (the redeployment from the DMZ) is fulfilled requires further discussions," Cha said. "But you can see a broad picture of where we are headed."
Last week, the U.S. military said it would spend an additional $11 billion over the next three years to strengthen its forces in South Korea. The plan included improvements to intelligence collecting and weapons upgrades as well as deployment of special, swift-action forces.
North Korea condemned that plan as a preparation for war.
Thursday's joint statement said the United States and South Korea want to structure "U.S. forces in a manner that further promotes regional stability."