Japan, S. Korea hold preliminary TPP talks in Tokyo

Japan and South Korea held talks Thursday in Tokyo to explore the possibility of Seoul's entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations, after it expressed interest last November in joining the prospective U.S.-led regional bloc.

After meeting with South Korea's Assistant Trade Minister Woo Tae Hee, Japan's chief TPP negotiator Koji Tsuruoka told reporters that Japan welcomes Seoul's "keen interest" in the TPP shown during the two-hour-long meeting.

Tsuruoka said that the two sides should continue efforts to collaborate on the economic front regardless of the TPP, given that Japan and South Korea have close trade ties.

Japan's fiscal and economic policy minister Akira Amari said earlier Japan basically welcomes South Korea's possible entry to the TPP if it is willing to contribute to achieving a high-standard, comprehensive trade deal. Japan will ask Seoul to reduce tariffs on industrial exports if it decides to join the TPP, he added.

Tokyo and Seoul launched bilateral free trade talks in 2003, but their negotiations have been stalled since 2004.

South Korea earlier held bilateral talks with the other 11 countries participating in the TPP talks, including Australia, Canada, Chile and New Zealand. It is expected to hold the second round of bilateral preliminary talks with the 12 TPP participants before deciding whether to take part in the negotiations.

The United States has also welcomed Seoul's expression of interest in joining the ambitious trade pact. But U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has reiterated that the possible entry of any new member would come after the negotiations among the current 12 Pacific Rim countries are concluded.

The TPP members had initially sought to strike a deal by the end of 2013 but missed the deadline due to differences over thorny issues such as tariff removal and intellectual property rights.

The 12 countries fell short of setting a new timeframe for striking a deal at the last ministerial meeting held in Singapore in February. But Froman said Wednesday the USTR "will work to conclude negotiations of the TPP in 2014."