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US, South Korea at odds on plans to cut troops, realign bases

Changes pose test for alliance

SEOUL -- Longstanding ties between the United States and South Korea faced a new test yesterday, with the allies disagreeing over plans to consolidate US bases in the South.

Seoul also said more talks are needed about separate plans by Washington to slash the number of American troops here.

While the US plans represent the biggest troop realignment in South Korea since the early 1970s, the alliance that was forged in the devastating 1950-53 Korean War was likely to remain resilient at a time when communist North Korea is believed to be developing nuclear weapons.

The United States says its troops contribute to a balance of power in a region where the major nations, including Japan and China, have traditionally dominated the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil described the US proposal to pull a third of its 37,000 troops out by the end of next year as not yet complete. But he promised to strengthen South Korean forces, which face a massive North Korean army across the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two sides.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said a reduction in troops levels does not mean the alliance with the South is weakening.

"Whether there are X number of troops on the Korean Peninsula or Y number of troops on the Korean Peninsula does not reflect on the strength of that alliance," Adam Ereli said.

South Korean National Security Adviser Kwon Chin-ho said the withdrawal plan, unveiled Sunday on the eve of two-day military talks in Seoul, was "nothing but a suggestion."

"Everything is on the table, including the size and timing of the U.S. troop pullout," he was quoted as saying by South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

North Korea has traditionally tried to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, and it might view the debate over U.S. troops as a sign of a fraying partnership.

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The two allies finished two-day discussions Tuesday over another plan to move U.S. troops south of Seoul and away from the tense border with North Korea.

The talks ended in disagreement over how much land would be needed for new bases, which would consolidate troops from around the country, said Lieutenant General Kwon Ahn-do, the main policy coordinator for South Korea's Defense Ministry.

The plan, long in discussion between the countries, calls for repositioning most of the U.S. troops stationed close to the border. It also would transfer about 7,000 U.S. forces and their families from the sprawling Yongsan Base in downtown Seoul to an expanded facility south of the capital by 2006.

Demands for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops have diminished in recent years and are opposed by most South Koreans.

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