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S. Korea, U.S. revise soldier pact

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. negotiators agreed Thursday to give South Korea more jurisdiction over American soldiers in criminal cases, removing one of the biggest complaints of local anti-U.S. activists.

The agreement came at the end of two days of talks in Seoul. The talks, the first since 1996, were called to revise a treaty that critics say infringes upon South Korea's sovereignty.

Despite the agreement, the allies have yet to resolve issues such as environmental regulations and labor rights for hundreds of South Korean workers hired by the U.S. military.

Negotiators agreed to reopen talks in Washington within two months to try to resolve pending issues of the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, which governs the legal treatment of 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

"Confirming the importance of the Republic of Korea-U.S. security alliance and the role of the SOFA in maintaining that alliance, both sides have agreed to revise the SOFA as soon as possible," a joint statement said.

Under the current treaty, signed in 1965 and revised in 1991, American soldiers accused of crimes must remain in the custody of the U.S. military until all appeals are exhausted through the South Korean court system.

At the Seoul talks, U.S. officials agreed to transfer custody of American criminal suspects at the time of indictment, the joint statement said.

Thursday's agreement, however, did not satisfy local activists, who demanded the two countries rewrite the treaty as soon as possible.

"The South Korean government and the U.S. military have had more than enough consultations, and they still say they need more talks. It's an insult to the people," an activist group said in a statement.

Critics say the current treaty is too lenient toward U.S. soldiers, compared with similar accords the United States has with other nations such as Germany and Japan.

Nevertheless, the agreement removed a major target of activists who have mounted anti-U.S. protests in recent months. Many South Koreans who support the U.S. military presence as a deterrent against North Korea have wanted the agreement revised.

Demands for revising the treaty gain currency whenever a U.S. soldier is implicated in a violent crime against a South Korean.

The U.S. military also came under fire last month when it admitted dumping 20 gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River, a main source of drinking water for Seoul's 12 million people.

Activists have staged demonstrations against a U.S. bombing range on the west coast, which villagers say is noisy and dangerous.

Frederick Smith, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific affairs, represented the United States at the talks. The South Korean team was led by Song Min-sun, head of the Foreign Ministry's America Bureau.