South Korea, EU launch high-level trade talks
By KELLY OLSEN,AP Business Writer AP - 1 hour 7 minutes ago
SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea and the European Union launched top-level trade talks Monday in a bid to iron out contentious issues standing in the way of a free trade agreement.
EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton and her South Korean counterpart Kim Jong-hoon shook hands before beginning two-day talks to help resolve issues over items including industrial tariffs, automobiles, and rules of origin.
The two trade ministers planned to meet reporters Tuesday morning, the EU's Seoul office said.
"We are close to a gate that leads to a new era," Kim told reporters ahead of the meeting, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. "It will not be easy to resolve contentious issues, but having talks with an open-minded attitude is more important."
The South Korea-EU free trade talks were launched amid much fanfare in May 2007 in Seoul, though contentious issues have prevented a deal being sealed despite multiple rounds of talks. The two sides have said they are making steady progress.
The EU is South Korea's second-largest trading partner after China. Trade between South Korea and the EU reached $93 billion in 2007, the last year for which annual figures are available. The EU is the largest foreign investor in South Korea.
Automobile trade strongly favors South Korea.
South Koreans bought 32,756 vehicles from EU member states last year, according to the Korea Automobile Importers & Distributors Association, more than from Japan and the United States.
South Korea exported more than 623,000 vehicles to the 27-member EU in 2007, the last year for which figures were available, according to data provided by the Korea Automobile Manufacturing Association.
There is no particular deadline for an agreement, though both sides have expressed interest in wrapping up a deal as soon as possible.
Ignacio Garcia Bercero, the EU's chief negotiator in the free trade talks, said early last year that "political efforts" would be needed on the issue of tariffs to clinch a deal.
Separately, the EU's major business lobby urged Ashton to focus on achieveing an ambitious agreement focused on market access as opposed to a speedy one.
"We urge you to deliver an agreement of the highest quality," Philippe de Buck, director general of BusinessEurope, which represents EU companies, wrote in a letter to Ashton released Monday. "The level of ambition must be more important than timing in reaching a conclusion."
South Korea is making a major push to sign free trade agreements. It reached one with the United States in 2007, though the deal has languished in political limbo in both countries and awaits ratification in their legislatures.
Associated Press photographer Jin-man Lee contributed to this report.
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