By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Jan. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and Uzbekistan announced Thursday that they will launch official negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement, in line with Seoul's efforts to diversify its export portfolio.
The two countries plan to hold the first round of the negotiations within the first quarter of this year, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.
The official name of the free trade pact will be the Agreement for Sustainable Trade and Economic Partnership (STEP).
Trade between the two countries came to US$1.72 billion in 2020, down 27 percent from the previous year. Uzbekistan was the 36th-largest export destination for South Korea, with outbound shipments reaching $1.7 billion.
South Korea mostly shipped auto parts and cars to the Central Asian nation, while major imports included pulp, a raw material for paper, and fruits.
Asia's No. 4 economy currently holds 17 sets of free trade deals covering 56 nations.
When completed, the pact with Uzbekistan will mark the first free trade deal signed with a Central Asian nation.
The ministry said the deal will pave the way for South Korean exporters to penetrate deeper into Central Asia, considering Uzbekistan boasts the largest population in the region.
South Korea has been rolling out what it calls New Southern and New Northern Policies, which center on expanding trade ties with emerging nations and reducing its reliance on China and the United States, which take up roughly 40 percent of annual exports.
Seoul currently awaits the official launch of the RCEP later this year, which covers ASEAN and its dialogue partners -- South Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
South Korea and Indonesia also signed the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) last year, which now awaits parliamentary approval. The CEPA is equivalent to a free trade agreement but focuses on a broader scope of economic cooperation.
South Korea is negotiating with Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia to sign more FTAs as well.
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