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South Korea, EU negotiators start first round of free trade talks

South Korea, EU negotiators start first round of free trade talks

South Korea and the European Union kicked off their first round of free trade talks Monday, while protesters denounced the effort as a threat to local jobs and livelihoods.
Chief negotiators Kim Han-soo for South Korea and Ignacio Garcia Bercero for the EU smiled and shook hands across a table at the Seoul hotel where they and their teams will meet for five days.
The effort by South Korea and the 27-member EU comes amid a flurry of bilateral free trade agreements and negotiations as talks toward a new multilateral global trade pact continue to flounder.
South Korea reached a landmark deal last month with the United States and has concluded other agreements as well, including a group accord with nine of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Seoul is also hammering out a deal with Canada and has expressed interest in striking one with China. Negotiations with neighboring Japan, however, have been suspended amid bickering over agriculture.
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong, formally announcing the launch of the talks Sunday, called opening up his trade-dependent country's market "a matter of survival."
Last week, the EU and ASEAN said they have agreed to start free trade talks.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, speaking to reporters Sunday in Seoul with Kim, said bilateral free trade agreements do not contradict efforts to forge a multilateral deal under the WTO, but helped fill key gaps even as a global accord remains the prime goal.
That effort has stalled mostly due to disagreements over rich nations' refusal to slash farm subsidies and poor countries' reluctance to grant greater access to their markets.
South Korea and the EU did nearly US$80 billion (euro59 billion) of trade last year. The EU is South Korea's second-biggest trading partner after China. The EU is the biggest foreign investor in South Korea.
If successful, an EU free trade deal would be South Korea's biggest, exceeding that with the United States.
South Korea is seeking to increase exports to the EU of automobiles, textiles, electronics, movies and music as well as access for South Korean professionals such as architects and nurses.
The EU would be looking to increase exports of autos and gain greater access to South Korea's service sector.
About 20 protesters gathered Monday in front of the entrance to the swank hilltop hotel venue ahead of the talks to demand that they be canceled.
Heo Young-koo, vice president of the 800,000-member Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said that a free trade agreement with the EU "will diminish workers' right to livelihood and lead to an increase in part-time jobs."
Similar protests dogged the 10-month effort by Seoul and Washington to forge a deal. Media coverage of the negotiations was intense, with Wendy Cutler, the chief U.S. negotiator, becoming a virtual household name in South Korea.
Garcia Bercero, joking with South Korean chief negotiator Kim, said his own days of anonymity were likely over with the start of the talks.
"But I will not become as popular as Wendy Cutler, that I can tell you," he quipped.
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APTN Senior Producer Seung-jai Moon and Producer Julie Choi contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-10-19 07:59 GMT+08:00