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(LEAD) S. Korea, 15 others set to launch regional free trade talks
SEOUL, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and 15 other countries are set to launch negotiations on a regional free trade pact next month, which could bring huge economic impact to Asia's fourth-largest economy, Seoul's trade ministry said Wednesday.

   According to the ministry, the so-called Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) involves the 16 countries -- the 10 ASEAN members plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, and aims to liberalize trade in goods, services and investment in the Asian region.

   Leaders from the nations are expected to officially announce the launch of RCEP talks in late November when they meet in Cambodia, according to the ministry.

   The proposed regional free trade pact is similar to a U.S.-led free trade pact in the Asia-Pacific region.

   According to the state-run Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP), the 16 countries have a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of US$19.7 trillion won, and their trade volume reaches $10.1 trillion with their combined population amounting to some 3.4 billion.

   The regional free trade pact would bring about up to $19.46 billion worth of economic benefits to South Korea, and raise the country's economic growth by 1.76 percent in 10 years after the deal takes effect. The projection is based on the assumption that tariffs on all products, excluding rice, are removed.

   "The proposed regional free trade pact would provide a chance for South Korea to capitalize on a production network in the East Asian region," said the report.

   Meanwhile, Japan, China and South Korea are also seeking to start negotiations for a trilateral free trade pact next month.

   South Korea and China are currently in talks over their bilateral free trade agreement. Free trade talks between Seoul and Tokyo have been stalled since late 2004, mainly because of Japan's reluctance to lower tariffs on agricultural goods.

   But there are growing concerns that ongoing territorial disputes among the three East Asian countries may delay the launch of free trade negotiations among them as was scheduled.

   According to the ministry, the combined GDP of the three nations reached $12.34 trillion in 2010, accounting for some 19.6 percent of the world's total GDP. The portion compares with the European Union's 30 percent and the U.S.'s 23 percent.

   Trade volume among the three nations amounted to $5.32 trillion in 2010, and their combined population reached 1.52 billion.

   The KIEP projected that a high-level trilateral free trade pact will jack up South Korea's economic growth by 1.45 percent and bring about $16.3 billion worth of economic benefits in 10 years after its implementation.

   During a public hearing on the proposed trilateral free trade pact, Seoul's deputy trade minister Choi Kyung-lim said the proposed free trade pact among the three nations will help improve the Northeast Asian region's trade structure, which is vulnerable to external impacts, and create a new market for the nations as well.

   "The proposed trilateral free trade pact will serve as a stepping stone for a comprehensive cooperation in the region," the official said.

   Mutual trust is insufficient in Northeast Asia and the economic community in Northeast Asia still has a long way to go due to disputes over territory, natural resources and past history, according to Kim Soung-chul, a researcher at the Seoul-based think tank Sejong Institute.

   "Those obstacles should be cleared off for a smooth progress of the proposed free trade pact," Kim said.

   The researcher also said strengthening human cultural interaction and cooperative development of maritime resources could help the regional dispute.