SEOUL — South Korea and the United States will hold “working level” discussions later this month about a U.S. proposal to reduce its military presence on the Korean peninsula, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday.

At the meetings, officials are expected to narrow the agenda for high-level talks in October. The sessions will be held Sept. 21-22 in Washington, officials said. The proposal, made public in June, would remove 12,500 U.S. troops from South Korea by next year, including the 3,600 2nd Infantry Division soldiers now on a one-year deployment to Iraq.

Negotiators from both sides hope to make significant progress at the annual Security Consultative Meeting between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his South Korean counterpart. That meeting is scheduled for Oct. 22, according to the Pentagon.

Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless also is scheduled to address the issue during a Sept. 15 visit to Seoul.

The troop-reduction proposal last was discussed at the 11th round of Future of the Alliance talks, which earlier this year finalized a deal to move Yongsan Garrison to an expanded military hub in Pyongtaek by the end of 2008.

The last FOTA talks, held in Seoul in August, ended without agreement on the reduction issue.

South Korean officials have pressed for at least a one-year delay in implementing the reductions, which Washington says are part of a larger, worldwide restructuring of U.S. forces overseas.

At a Tuesday news conference at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld again sought to reassure South Koreans that any reduction in the number of U.S. troops would not affect their deterrent capabilities. The proposal’s announcement sent security jitters through South Korea, especially given the unresolved nuclear standoff with North Korea.

“We understand the nature of that regime in the north and have no intention at all of allowing any sort of a vacuum. And any suggestion to the contrary would be a fundamental mistake,” Rumsfeld said, according to a Pentagon transcript.

U.S. defense assets in South Korea “are vastly more capable” than a decade ago, Rumsfeld said, “because we’ve invested a large number of billions of dollars” into improvements.

The United States also has pledged $11 billion in high-tech weapons systems for South Korean defense over the next three years, U.S. officials have said.

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