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US to Move Military Facility in Seoul - 2003-04-09

The United States and South Korea have agreed to move a large U.S. military facility out of Seoul as soon as possible. The decision comes as both countries are struggling to defuse tensions over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The two governments say the U.S. military's Yongsan Garrison in central Seoul will be moved "as soon as possible." However, no date was given, and officials on Wednesday did not say where the offices and homes on the base will be moved.

For years, some South Koreans have called for moving the base, complaining that it sits on valuable real estate and the troops based there cause trouble for the surrounding community.

President Roh Moo-hyun, however, has appeared reluctant to agree to a move. Many government officials fear any change to the American bases could heighten tensions between North and South Korea. Relations between the two have been strained by U.S. statements last year that North Korea admitted having a banned nuclear weapons program.

Research analyst Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis says he worries that closing Yongsan will send the wrong message. "The timing is very bad," he says. "Relocation of U.S. forces at this moment could be interpreted as an emotional response of Washington to anti-Americanism in South Korea."

Mr. Kim adds that the North Korean government might see the move as evidence that it is succeeding in driving a wedge between Seoul and its closest ally, Washington. The decision to move Yongsan came at the end of two days of talks between U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless and South Korean Assistant Defense Minister Cha Young-koo.

The talks, however, did not produce a decision on U.S. proposals to move some troops farther from the front line with communist North Korea. Nearly half of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are based near the border dividing the Korean Peninsula.

Since the U.S. statements about its nuclear programs, North Korea has withdrawn from the global nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and restarted an idled nuclear facility. It also has flown fighter jets into South Korean airspace and test-fired missiles into the sea, and has issued a stream of threatening rhetoric.

Despite Wednesday's announcement, it could be years before Yongsan actually is moved. In the late 1980's South Korean and U.S. officials agreed to move the base. However, they were never able to agree on how to pay for the move. In addition, South Korea has had trouble finding a new location for the facility, which is the American military's headquarters in the country, and houses several thousand soldiers and their families.