The US yesterday transferred security at a crucial truce village in the inter-Korean buffer zone to South Korea, signaling the start of US troop relocation.
The US military said its soldiers stopped patrolling the demilitarized zone (DMZ) after the transfer went into effect at midnight on Sunday to give South Korea more control over the defense of its border with North Korea.
"As of today, the role of our security work at Panmunjom was transferred to South Korea," a US military official said.
The transfer of US duties in Panmunjom was a key part of broad plans to relocate US troops stationed in South Korea under a mutual defense pact.
Panmunjom in the middle of the 4km-wide DMZ is a neutral area where an armistice accord was signed on July 27, 1953 to end the Korean War.
It serves an inter-Korean contact point on the border where US troops had come face to face with North Korean soldiers across a shallow concrete curb which serves as a border marker.
US troops under a UN flag had guarded the southern part of Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is 800m in diameter and houses conference rooms.
From yesterday, about 500 South Korean soldiers were posted at Panmunjom.
US troops also relinquished their only military outpost, Ouellette, in the 248km DMZ to South Korea. A platoon of US soldiers in Ouellette have patrolled a key part of the buffer zone.
But the US insists official control over Panmunjom is still at the hands of US officers who will stay outside the JSA at least until the US completes its troop relocation.
Under a deal reached last month, the US agreed to pull out 12,500 troops, one-third of its forces in the country, by 2008.
About 5,000 US soldiers will be withdrawn by the end of this year. Next year 3,000 more will go, followed by 2,000 in 2006 and 2,500 in 2007 and 2008.
The US also wants to move an American frontline infantry division to bases south of Seoul. The division, guarding a crucial invasion route from the Stalinist North, has been a key US security commitment.