South Korea, Japan and China began a new round of negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in Seoul on Tuesday in an effort to thrash out their remaining differences.
The two-day meeting marks the seventh of its kind since the countries held the first round of negotiations in March 2013, according to the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
But it is the first since the countries agreed to separate working-level talks from a head delegates' meeting, a move aimed at promoting in-depth discussions at the working level followed by political concessions by chief negotiators if necessary.
"At the head delegates' meeting, the countries will focus on key remaining issues, such as the basic guidelines for negotiations on market liberalization for products, as well as the way to achieve market liberalization," the ministry said earlier.
The latest round of working-level talks was held in Seoul from April 13-17.
The trilateral FTA, if signed, will become one of the most significant free trade pacts in the region that will link three of Asia's four-largest economies.
It will also be the first of its kind that links South Korea and Japan.
Ministry officials have said Japan is about the only advanced nation with which South Korea does not have a free trade pact.
Seoul has signed 15 FTAs involving 52 countries, with 11 of them having already been implemented. Its negotiations with China for a bilateral FTA were concluded late last year, and the countries are now moving to sign the deal before the end of next year.
Seoul and Tokyo have held four rounds of negotiations for a bilateral FTA, but the talks have been suspended since November 2004, partly due to Japan's opposition to liberalize its agricultural market.
The three countries have said they will work to conclude their talks for a trilateral FTA before the end of next year.
However, many officials here believe they will need more time.
"Negotiations for the South Korea-China-Japan FTA are moving more slowly than we have expected," South Korean Trade Minister Yoon Sang-jick said earlier.