HONOLULU — The United States will move all of its troops out of metropolitan Seoul over the next three years without reducing the total number of forces in South Korea, both countries agreed yesterday.
Under a historic plan to end a U.S. presence in the capital dating to the end of the Korean War, about 7,000 U.S. service personnel and their families will be moved to an expanded facility about 45 miles south of Seoul, said Richard Lawless, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia.
Mr. Lawless and Lt. Gen. Cha Young-koo, South Korea’s assistant defense minister for policy, announced the agreement in Honolulu at the end of a round of talks on the future of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
The decision 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.
Gen. Cha said the move should defuse some anti-U.S. sentiments in the country.
Most South Koreans support the U.S. military presence in the country as a deterrent against communist North Korea. But residents of Seoul have complained 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 as a slight to national pride.
Gen. Cha said there had been no discussion of any reduction of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. He said the United States has agreed to spend $11 billion over the next several years to improve U.S. readiness on the peninsula.
Gen. Cha said the South Koreans wanted to keep about 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Seoul, but agreed to the relocation of all U.S. forces from the Yongsan Garrison in downtown Seoul. About 50 to 100 U.S. military liaison personnel would remain, Mr. Lawless said.
He said the move is expected to be completed by the end of 2006, and units would not begin moving out until the end of next year.
The announcement on the troop movement came as South Korea’s new foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, said the atmosphere was “maturing” for a new round of six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development and resolving the 16-month-old standoff. The first round of meetings involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas ended in August without much progress.
“The atmosphere is maturing for a second round of six-nation talks,” Mr. Ban said. “North Korea is expressing its will to abandon nuclear development and showing positive signs toward participating in talks, and under these circumstance, the participating countries will show more flexibility and try to find within the year a lead in resolving the issue.”
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 de-lists the communist country from its list of terrorism-sponsoring nations and provides economic aid. The United States says North Korea must first dismantle its nuclear programs before receiving any concessions.