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South Korea, China and Japan will begin their own domestic procedures next month for the launch of free trade talks among the nations, Seoul's trade ministry said Friday.
Wrapping up a two-day working-level meeting in Seoul this week, the three nations agreed to start necessary procedures such as public hearings, the ministry said.
The three major East Asian countries have been working to launch their trilateral free trade talks in November, when their leaders are scheduled to meet in Cambodia for a regional conference.
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.
"Although the three nations are scheduled to announce the launch of trilateral free trade talks in November, (announcing the launch of free trade talks) is a high-level political act," Seoul's deputy trade minister Choi Kyung-lim said in a briefing on Wednesday.
The latest outbreak of anti-Japan sentiment flared over Japan's recent decision to buy some disputed islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China from Japanese owners.
Also, diplomatic tension between Seoul and Tokyo remains high following the unprecedented Aug. 10 visit to the rocky outcroppings of Dokdo in the East Sea by President Lee Myung-bak, who cited Tokyo's unrepentant attitude over its brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula as a key reason for the trip.
According to the ministry, the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the three nations reached US$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.