ARLINGTON, Va. — Six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear issues are preferable to bilateral talks between Pyongyang and the United States, agreed U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Republic of Korea Minister of Defense Yoon Kwang Ung said.

The top defense leaders of their respective countries met one another for the first time Friday at the Pentagon for the 36th annual Security Consultative Meeting.

“Obviously, the U.S. government position is that six-party talks are the proper way to proceed,” Rumsfeld told reporters in a brief press session after the morninglong talks with Yoon.

The question of who should discuss North Korea’s rogue nuclear weapons program will largely occupy Secretary of State Colin Powell during his tour to East Asia. Powell was due to arrive in Japan on Saturday.

The United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have agreed to work with North Korea on the delicate negotiations, which the Bush administration has said should result in nothing short of the full dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Asked whether bilateral talks between just Washington and Pyongyang might “destabilize” the process, Yoon replied through an interpreter that while he believed the six-party talks were the best option, if bilateral negotiations were held “there would be close consultation between Washington and Seoul” throughout the discussions.

Rumsfeld denied that cutting the number of troops in South Korea would affect the security of the peninsula.

“We don’t see anything changing, in terms of the role of U.S. forces” in South Korea, Rumsfeld said, although “South Korea is appropriately taking a leading role in their own defense,” he said.

“What will change,” Rumsfeld said, is the responsibility taken by ROK troops “as facts on the ground evolve.”

“They’ll be assuming more responsibility as we adjust our relationship going forward,” Rumsfeld said.

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