SEOUL, South Korea — The United States wants to withdraw a third of its 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea by the end of next year, a foreign ministry official has said.
Details of the plan — which would be the first major troop cut on the Korean Peninsula since 1992 — came as the two countries met Monday to discuss U.S. plans for repositioning soldiers along the Cold War’s last frontier.
The U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless, said Washington wanted to withdraw some 12,500 U.S. troops by December 2005, said Kim Sook, head of the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s North American bureau.
The figure would include about 3,600 already slated to be redeployed this summer from South Korea to Iraq.
South Korean officials will meet to review the proposal before responding to the United States.
Some South Koreans fear any cut in U.S. military presence might weaken its defense readiness against the million-man army of North Korea, the world’s fifth largest military.
There are over 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea helping defend the heavily-fortified border between North and South Korea.
The U.S. military presence not only helps South Korea’s 650,000-strong military guard against the North — it also forms a key element in U.S. military strategy in the region.
While Washington has labeled North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” along with pre-war Iraq and Iran, a troop move underscores how much the U.S. military is stretched to provide enough forces for Iraq while also meeting its other commitments.
Washington has previously indicated it wanted to reduce troops at the border while shoring up its military might in South Korea by deploying newer weapons, including Patriot anti-missile systems, that could protect against North Korean missiles.
U.S. troops came to South Korea to liberate it from Japanese colonialists at the end of World War II.
They led U.N. forces that defended South Korea from North Korean invaders aided by China and the then-Soviet Union.
The two Koreas remain technically at war, because their conflict ended in an armed truce that has never been converted into a peace treaty.