WASHINGTON — A South Korean government official said Friday the country is interested in holding preliminary bilateral talks with the 12 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord, as it explores whether to formally join the negotiatinos.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, responding to South Korean Deputy Prime Minister Hyun Oh-seok’s announcement on Friday, said the country “plays an important role in the regional economy, and its interest in the TPP demonstrates the significant importance of this initiative to the region.”

Froman said he will work closely with U.S. stakeholders and Congress in considering any bid South Korea might make to join the TPP and in laying the groundwork for the country’s possible entry into the trade negotiations, which are said to be in the final stages.

The entry of any new country to the TPP negotiations would be “expected to occur after the negotiations among the current members are concluded,” Froman said. The current countries involved in the TPP negotiations include the U.S., Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore. All 12 countries would also have to approve South Korea’s entry into the TPP.

The U.S. already has a bilateral trade deal with South Korea. Though not a major supplier of apparel and textiles to the U.S., combined shipments totalled $921 million for the year ending Sept. 30. The U.S. International Trade Comission has estimated that the reduction of tariffs and duty-free status of many product categories alone under the FTA will add $10 billion to $12 billion annually to the U.S. GDP and around $10 billion in U.S. merchandise exports to Korea.

“The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement already demonstrates that Korea and the United States share a common approach with regard to certain rules for trade and investment,” Froman said. “As with previous prospective members, these consultations will focus on Korea’s readiness to meet high standards across the TPP, as well as to address outstanding bilateral issues of concern including full implementation of existing obligations.”

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