South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil described the U.S. proposal to pull a third of its 37,000 troops out by the end of next year as not yet finalized. But he pledged to beef up Seoul's own forces amid concerns of a security vacuum along the Cold War's last frontier.
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.
A U.S. official said on condition of anonymity that Washington has asked Seoul for input and is hoping to wrap up talks within a few months. He described Sunday's overture as "an opportunity for us to begin to consult."
Still to be discussed are such issues as what units would be pulled, he said.
A U.S. pullout would force South Korea to shoulder more responsibility for defending itself from possible North Korean military aggression.
Some Koreans favor the drawdown, reports CBS Newsman Victor Fic in Seoul, but conservatives fear North Korea might think that America and South Korea are drifting apart.
Cho tried to quell concerns about the U.S. withdrawal plan, saying: "We have to have further negotiations ... it has not yet been decided."
"Concerning concerns about a security vacuum, we will take measures to ensure that the U.S.-South Korea deterrent capability is not diminished, and we will make efforts to strengthen our deterrent capabilities," Cho said.
Posturing over the proposed troop withdrawal, the first major U.S. reduction since the early 1990s, came as the two allies finished two-day discussions over another sensitive issue — plans to move U.S. troops way from the tense border with communist North Korea to points further south of the capital, Seoul.
Those talks ended in disagreement over how much land would be needed for new bases, which would consolidate troops from around the country, said Lt. Gen. Kwon Ahn-do, the main policy coordinator for South Korea's Defense Ministry. He declined to give details.
The U.S. official described the disagreement as "frustrating for us."
The plan, long in discussion between the countries, calls for repositioning most of the U.S. troops stationed close the North Korean border. It would also 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.
The U.S. troops along the border were long considered a "tripwire" to ensure U.S. intervention if the North attacks. Many in the South also see it as a healthy restraint on the United States, believing Washington won't take military action to provoke the North when U.S. troops are in harm's way on the border.
The United States has stationed troops in South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War — partly as a deterrent against North Korea and partly as a counterbalance to other regional powers. The Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides technically still at war.
The U.S. bases, often nestled in dense urban areas, have traditionally been a flash point for anti-American sentiment and sometimes violent protests. Consolidating the bases is seen as one way of easing such resentment, especially among the younger generation.
South Korea's 650,000-member military is a modern, well-equipped force that routinely conducts joint training with U.S. counterparts. Most of the combat-ready troops are concentrated close to the border or around Seoul.
North Korea has a formidable arsenal of missiles and more than 1 million soldiers, but it is said to have fuel shortages and lack spare parts for its decrepit military hardware, some of which dates to the 1950s.
Cho did not give any details Tuesday about how the South might bolster its military deterrent.
Washington has said it will spend $11 billion over the next five years to upgrade its military in the theater as part of a global overhaul to focus on firepower and improved flexibility of troops to rush to global hotspots.