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South Korea, China to begin free trade agreement talks next week

SEOUL -- South Korea will start talks next week aimed at securing a free trade agreement with China, its largest commercial partner and the world's second biggest economy, officials said Wednesday.

Choi Seok-young, deputy minister for free trade agreements, will meet his counterpart Yu Jianhua in Beijing Monday, Deputy Trade Minister Lee Si-hyung told reporters.

“The upcoming talks are aimed at discussing ... the scope of the pact, how to form the group of negotiators and to exchange necessary data and information as well as a schedule for future negotiations,” Lee said.

The countries' trade ministers announced in Beijing last week that formal negotiations on the pact would begin this month and were expected to take two years.

Beijing forecasts trade between the two sides to reach US$300 billion by 2015, up from US$245.6 billion last year, according to Chinese customs data.

Seoul policymakers say such a pact would allow South Korea to better compete against Taiwan in the lucrative Chinese market after Taipei struck a trade agreement with Beijing in 2010.

Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan has repeatedly called for early negotiations with Beijing, saying the China-Taiwan deal put South Korean firms at a “great disadvantage.”

Deputy Minister Lee said trade ministers from South Korea, China and Japan would separately meet in Beijing Saturday as part of annual three-way trade talks, to discuss a possible separate trilateral free trade pact.

“China and Japan hope to begin negotiations by the end of this year,” he said, adding Seoul also sees “little difficulty” in doing so.

A joint feasibility study on a trade bloc grouping the three nations — none of which has a trade pact with each other — found that all members would benefit, Lee said.

Export-dependent South Korea has been more successful than its neighbors in negotiating free trade pacts, signing deals with the United States, the European Union, India, Chile, Peru, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Singapore and the European Free Trade Association.

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