SEOUL, Oct 26: US troops will stay in South Korea even after a permanent peace pact is signed for the peninsula, South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon said on Friday.

“The US forces in Korea will maintain their presence on the Korean peninsula even after a peace regime is established, and continue to carry out a role that would serve new security needs in Northeast Asia,” Song told a forum. US troops have been based in the South since the end of the 1950-53 war.

Currently, some 29,500 US troops plus South Korea’s 680,000-strong military confront communist North Korea’s 1.1-million-strong army.

Song said the Seoul-Washington alliance was already adapting to a new role.

US bases are being consolidated and relocated further from the inter-Korean border and South Korea will regain wartime control over its own troops by 2012.

“I believe the groundwork for establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula has thus been under way already,” Song said.

The two Koreas are still technically at war since the conflict did not end with a peace treaty but an armistice, signed by the US-led United Nations forces on the one side and North Korea and China on the other.

Debate on when to start discussing a peace pact intensified after the North and South Korean leaders agreed during their October 2-4 summit to seek a declaration formally ending the war.

A six-nation pact on scrapping the North’s nuclear weapons programmes envisages the signing of a formal peace treaty.

Song said the “practical process” for setting up a peace mechanism had already begun, after the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan this month agreed that the North would declare and disable its nuclear programmes by year-end.He said North Korea would start taking “actual steps” early next month to start the nuclear disablement and declaration phase.

US ambassador Alexander Vershbow told the forum there were no significant differences in the approaches of Seoul and Washington on a peace pact.

“We favour launching the negotiations after North Korea disables its existing nuclear facilities, provides a complete and comprehensive declaration of all nuclear programmes and demonstrates it’s on the road to complete denuclearisation,” Vershbow said.

“Certainly, this part of the world is really where we are seeing the last chapter of the Cold War playing itself out, and I think we have a shared interest in bringing the chapter to a close as quickly as possible.”—AFP

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