SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - South Korea on Tuesday officially approved the start of free trade talks with the European Union, one month after forging a landmark deal with the United States to cut tariffs and other barriers to commerce.
South Korea and the EU will hold their first round of negotiations in Seoul for five days from May 7, the Ministry of Finance and Economy said in a statement.
The decision came at a meeting of government officials chaired by Minister of Finance and Economy Kwon O-kyu.
The EU is South Korea's second-largest trading partner after China. South Korean-EU trade totaled $79.4 billion in 2006, according to the statement.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson is expected to formally announce the start of talks with South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong on Sunday in Seoul, South Korea said.
The announcement of the first round of negotiations comes after South Korea concluded its biggest ever free-trade agreement last month with the U.S.
That deal, the biggest for Washington since the North American Free Trade Agreement more than a decade ago, still requires approval by legislatures in both countries to take effect.
The U.S. is South Korea's third-largest trading partner with 2006 trade amounting to $76.9 billion.
South Korean labor, farm and activist groups carried out regular street demonstrations against the negotiations, which lasted for 10 months, saying a deal would cost jobs and harm livelihoods in South Korea.
According to the ministry, South Korea is seeking to increase exports to the 25-nation EU of automobiles, auto parts, electronics, textiles and clothing.
The ministry said the two sides will hold five to six more negotiating sessions this year, but offered no specific deadline for the conclusion of an agreement.
Seoul and Washington carried out their talks amid considerable drama as they struggled to reach a compromise ahead of a deadline dictated by the expiration of special trade negotiation powers granted by Congress to President George W. Bush. In the end, they reached the agreement on April 2 in Seoul with just minutes to spare.