South Korean finance minister Hong Nam Ki said Monday the country's government will begin the process to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, adding it to a growing list of aspirants that includes China and Taiwan.
Hong, who doubles as deputy prime minister, made the remark at a meeting of Cabinet ministers on external economic affairs. The government is expected to submit its application after reporting the move to the nation's parliament, among other steps.
Hong said given the situation in which China and Taiwan have applied for membership, it "has become difficult to keep the matter to discussions within government offices."
"Relevant procedures" have thus been initiated to promote Seoul's application for the TPP, after "comprehensive consideration of...our status as an open trading country," the minister added.
To join the trade deal, an applicant needs the approval of all 11 existing members -- Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the prospect of South Korea joining the TPP, known formally as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, after a meeting with visiting South Korean President Moon Jae In on Monday.
"We are important trading partners and we welcome the prospect of Korea joining the CPTPP and we look forward, should they wish to take that decision and step, we look forward to being an encouraging partner," Morrison said at a joint news conference with Moon.
Meanwhile, a Japanese government source said Tokyo needs to see if South Korea can meet high-standard free trade rules as a TPP member, expressing a cautious stance toward the South Korean bid.
The source also cited "various matters of concern" between the two countries, such as a dispute over wartime labor compensation and South Korea's import restrictions on some Japanese fishery products imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In December last year, Moon expressed South Korea's willingness to consider joining the pact. It is already a member of the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement, which will take effect on Jan. 1.
China and Taiwan applied for TPP membership in September, while Britain did so in February.