Negotiations for a free trade deal between South Korea and the European Union are nearly complete with the most contentious disputes of tariff cuts largely resolved, the South Korean trade minister said.

Seoul and Brussels, hoping to boost their $100 billion two-way trade, launched the talks in 2007 shortly after the United States struck a free trade deal with South Korea that has not been ratified by either country’s legislature.

“EU Trade Commissioner (Catherine) Ashton and myself have been able to confirm that we have considerably narrowed views on major areas of contention in the South Korea-EU free trade talks,” South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon told a news conference.

“The question is whether the talks in March will be the last round and I myself anticipate it to be the case and we’ll make efforts so that that’ll be the case.”

For the European Union, a deal to lower barriers to trade and investment with South Korea would be its first such pact in Asia, but they have missed a self-imposed end-2008 deadline to seal the deal.

European carmakers have expressed concern that Brussels might agree to bring down its import tariffs on South Korean cars without getting in return a deal to clear away the red tape that they say holds them back in the Asian country’s market. The European Union is South Korea’s second largest export market after China, and South Korea is EU’s fourth-largest non-European trade partner. (Reuters)