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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — All but a handful of U.S. troops on the border with North Korea will move away from the Demilitarized Zone by October, leaving a greater responsibility to the South Korean forces to defend the boundary, U.S. Forces Korea said Tuesday.

Starting Oct. 31, a small number of U.S. soldiers will remain as part of the Joint Security Battalion, a South Korean-dominated force led by a U.S. lieutenant colonel. The battalion manages security at Panmunjom, the inter-Korean border area where the armistice agreement was signed 51 years ago.

USFK declined to release the number of troops that will remain. However, the command said U.S. troops would comprise about 7 percent of the battalion, and the rest would be reassigned throughout 8th Army.

In January, Brig. Gen. John A. MacDonald, commander of the Korean Regional Office, said U.S. troops would be reduced from 200 to 43 at camps Bonifas and Liberty Bell, neighboring camps just south of the DMZ’s fence.

“We embrace the ROK [Republic of Korea] assuming a larger role in the JSA [Joint Security Area] security and support roles as a positive accomplishment between our two nations,” Gen. Leon LaPorte, U.S. Forces Korea commander, stated in the release. “This is a great step forward in our alliance.”

The Joint Security Battalion falls under the commander of the U.N. Command, also led by LaPorte.

U.S. forces have relinquished front-line patrols to the South Korean Army incrementally over the past 30 years. While at least 89 U.S. soldiers died in the 1960s and 1970s defending the DMZ, incidents and injuries declined in following years.

The withdrawal also includes turning over Outpost Ouellette, the DMZ’s only U.S.-staffed observation post. Positioned about 75 feet from North Korea’s border, it is the boundary’s most strategic post; observers can see the North Korean city of Kaesong.

North Korea — despite demanding a U.S. troop withdrawal for years — condemned the move Saturday, saying it undermined the armistice agreement. “The U.S. decision to take even its small force out of the JSA in Panmunjom indicates that the U.S. preparations for a pre-emptive attack are under way,” according to the Korea Central News Agency, the country’s official news outlet.

The moves are part of a larger plan to move U.S. troops away from urban South Korean areas into consolidated bases. Negotiations continue about financing Yongsan Garrison’s move, scheduled by the end of 2006.

About 100 South Korean supply, maintenance and soldier-support workers will be affected by the JSA transfer. They’ll have “the opportunity to seek other positions on the peninsula with U.S. forces,” the release stated.

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