The U.S. and South Korea are slated to kick off bilateral economic talks in February as a first step toward reaching a free trade agreement, The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported Friday.

In addition to strengthening their economic ties, the two nations aim to improve diplomatic and security relations that have been strained by their differences over how to handle North Korea. This marks the first effort by the U.S. to reach a free trade agreement with an East Asian economy.

The first bureau-chief-level meeting between the two nations will be held Feb. 3. Seoul envisions reaching an agreement after about two years of negotiations. It seeks to hold four or so working-level meetings by June, with the launching of full-fledged negotiations announced in November when the leaders of both countries meet in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting to be held in Pusan.

The U.S. is taking a more cautious approach, emphasizing that liberalization in such sectors as agriculture, service and investment is an absolute condition for an agreement. Washington would like to initially determine through the working-level talks whether a comprehensive agreement is possible, a senior trade representative said.

The American side seeks a sharp increase in exports, such as those of agricultural products, in an effort to curb its nearly $20 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea. Increased service-sector exports and an expansion in direct investments are also goals.

South Korea hopes to boost exports in the textile and apparel sector, which is now assessed a high tariff of 8 percent to 13 percent. The electrical machinery and electronics segment, covering such products as cellular handsets and home appliances, is assessed duties of 2 percent to 5 percent. South Korean negotiators plan to seek the elimination of tariffs for both categories.

South Korea was the U.S.'s No. 7 trading partner in 2003. And the U.S. represents South Korea's second-largest export market, trailing only China.