SEOUL, June 5 (UPI) -- The U.S. military will begin relocate its main base from the populous South Korean capital within this year, as part of a realignment program for 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in this country, Korean defense officials said Thursday.
U.S. Forces Korea also will implement a two-stage plan "over several years" to move some 15,000 American troops from the heavily fortified border with communist North Korea.
"Both sides agreed that our fundamental goal is to enhance deterrence and security on the Korean peninsula and improve the combined defense," according a statement released by South Korea's Defense Ministry after two days of talks.
The closed-door meeting, on how to alter the size and locations of the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, was held between Richard Lawless, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, and South Korea's assistant defense minister for policy, Cha Young-koo.
Under a swap deal, the South Korean government will procure new land south of Seoul to be used for American soldiers who will consolidate their installations there, the agreement said.
The U.S. troops, now scattered over about 100 camps and bases across South Korea, will eventually be consolidated into three major bases south of Seoul, Cha told a news conference at the Defense Ministry building.
Under the plan, the U.S. military agreed to begin returning the land and facilities used by its troops (in Seoul) within this year, Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Hwang Young-soo told the news conference in reading the Defense Ministry statement.
In the previous talks in April, the U.S. military agreed to relocate its main Yongsan garrison, located in one Seoul's most populous areas, to a new location "as soon as possible."
On Tuesday, Gen. Leon J. LaPorte, the U.S. military commander in South Korea, told South Korean lawmakers that the United States will move 6,000 of its 7,000 troops stationed in Seoul to Pyeongtaek and Osan, south of the capital.
It was the first time that a U.S. military commander in South Korea has disclosed the number of troops in Seoul to be relocated.
South Koreans have sought an early relocation of the Yongsan garrison, the focus of much of the anti-American tension in South Korea over the past years.
But they have opposed any sudden change to 15,000 U.S. frontline troops with the 2nd Infantry Division near the frontline with North Korea, for fear their withdrawal from the border would weaken their deterrence capabilities.
South Korean officials were stunned earlier this week when their request to delay the frontline troops relocation was rejected by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who said the plan should not be delayed until the nuclear issue is resolved and should include the 2nd Infantry Division.
In a bid to calm South Korea's security concerns, the U.S. military agreed to run military a training camp north of Seoul in which unspecified number of American troops will stay, the agreement said. The two sides will meet again in the United States in July for further discussions, it said.
U.S. troops have been welcomed here since they fought alongside South Korea to repel North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. But U.S. installations have long been a source of friction between residents and U.S. military officials.
The U.S. military presence was challenged by massive anti-U.S. protests sparked by the deaths of two girls killed in a road accident by a U.S. military vehicle a year ago.
Wolfowitz, in a news conference in Seoul Monday, offered an apology again for the deaths of the South Korean teenage girls.
South Korean civic activists and students are preparing for massive anti-U.S. protests in central Seoul on June 13, the day when the two teenagers were killed last year.