South Korea reaches free trade deal with Central America

French politicians (from L-R) Alain Juppe, Francois Fillon, Bruno Le Maire, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jean-Frederic Poisson and Jean-Francois Cope attend the second prime-time televised debate for the French conservative presidential primary in Paris, France, November 3, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea and six Central American countries have reached a free trade deal that will eliminate tariffs for more than 95 percent of export items from Asia’s fourth-largest economy including autos, steel and textiles, the Korean trade ministry said on Thursday.

South Korean trade minister Joo Hyung-hwan met with his counterparts from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua on Wednesday, where they announced the agreement was concluded, the trade ministry said in a statement.

The deal, which will be South Korea’s 16th free trade pact if ratified by all parties, will remove tariffs on more than 95 percent of goods exported to the Central American countries.

It will open South Korea’s market to coffee, sugarcane and fruits but exclude rice, and further liberalization of the market for beef and pork will be gradual over a period of up to 19 years to protect domestic industries, the ministry said.

The trade ministry said it expects the deal to help South Korea gain an advantage over other Asian countries such as China and Japan, as Seoul is the first Asian country to sign a deal with the six Central American countries.

It also expects the pact to pave a new way to enter North American markets amid growing concerns over protectionism after Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. presidential election.

Trade between South Korea and the six countries totaled $4.05 billion in 2015, the trade ministry said.

South Korea also has free trade agreements with the United States, China and the European Union.

Reporting by Jane Chung; Editing by Jacqueline Wong