The US is discussing with Seoul the possible withdrawal of thousands of US troops from South Korea while increasing American military strength and mobility there and around Asia, US defense officials said on Saturday.
The officials said the bilateral talks were being held in conjunction with Pentagon planning on changing the US military "footprint" around the world after the Cold War, but stressed that it was far too soon to speculate on the touchy issue of how many of the 37,000 US troops in the South might be withdrawn.
"The final figure could could be high -- I wouldn't argue with thousands. But that is speculation and far from decided," one of the officials, who asked not to be identified, told reporters when asked about a report that as many as one-third could leave South Korea.
Another official stressed that any withdrawal of thousands of troops would likely be accompanied by increases in US air and naval power in the Asia-Pacific, including the possibility of placing additional strike aircraft on the island of Guam and even a second aircraft carrier in or near the region.
"It is just premature to discuss numbers. Nothing has been decided on that [South Korea]," US Department of Defense spokesman Larry Di Rita said.
"We have said we are working on restructuring our presence globally. But we always start with the premise that we will remain engaged in a way that reflects the current world," he said.
The US and South Korea, close military allies on a still-tense peninsula 50 years after the end of the Korean War, agreed in June to move thousands of US troops away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.
North Korea has thousands of loaded artillery pieces aimed at Seoul and half of its army is deployed within 64km of the DMZ dividing the peninsula, the world's most heavily fortified border.
The two-phase, multiyear pullback of ground troops from near the zone caused anxiety in South Korea because it was unveiled in the middle of a crisis over the North's nuclear ambitions that has escalated since late last year.
Any outright large-scale removal of American forces from the South would be a controversial issue with the Seoul government despite growing unhappiness among many South Koreans over the decades-long, high-profile US military presence.
US President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun are expected to discuss their military ties today on the fringes of an Asia-Pacific summit in Bangkok.
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