SEOUL, The European Commission warned Tuesday that it will launch an expert panel to review South Korea's compliance with the free trade pact it signed with the European Union if it fails to ratify key international labor conventions.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom delivered the message to South Korean Labor Minister Lee Jae-kap during a meeting in Seoul earlier in the day, according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

An EU delegation led by Malmstrom was in Seoul for the 8th Trade Committee meeting with South Korean officials to discuss various topics, including Seoul's long-pending ratification of four fundamental International Labor Organization (ILO) provisions.

The EU has demanded Seoul approve the provisions as agreed in their free trade agreement (FTA) implemented in 2011.

Malmstrom said in the meeting that ratifying the conventions could strengthen the competitiveness of South Korean businesses, contrary to industry worries, and called for the government's stepped-up efforts to resolve the matter, the ministry quoted her as saying.

Lee stressed that Korea is doing its utmost to fulfill its agreement, inasmuch as ratification has been one of the key national policy agendas pushed by the office of President Moon Jae-in, the ministry added.

In a press briefing that followed the meeting, Malmstrom said the EU hasn't set a deadline for Korea as of yet. Early this year, the EU asked Korea to produce an outcome on ratification by early April.

The EU will decide whether to press Seoul further with stronger measures after the delegation holds talks with lawmakers at the National Assembly, where her team was headed next, Malstrom said.

"We want to avoid a trade dispute. It's not about sanctions, but (more) about Korea as an ILO and OECD member showing that it lives up to the international conventions," Malstrom said.

South Korea joined the United Nations agency on labor in 1991 but hasn't ratified four key conventions. They generally concern the strengthening of basic labor rights, such as guaranteeing the rights of individuals to organize a group to represent themselves and to take action to defend their labor rights.

But current South Korean labor law forbids certain categories of worker, such as public officials, and dismissed employees, from joining a labor union. It also mandates that the establishment of a labor union requires approval from the relevant government office.

Failing to ratify the ILO provisions does not necessarily lead to additional tariffs or penalties, but the Korean government is worried that a delayed process could act as a barrier to expanding free trade between the two sides and undermine Korea's reputation in international trade.

The ratification can now only be sought through amending related laws at the National Assembly. But that will be another tough road to take as any bid to change the law without a social consensus will further likely cause strife between the interested parties.

Business and labor unions remain divided over the proposals the industry side has made in exchange for agreeing to the ratification.

Businesses call for allowing substitute workers to make up for a lack of workforce during a strike and abolishing punishment of employers for obstructing labor activities. They also want the collective agreement to be renegotiated every three to four years instead of every two years.

The labor side has emphatically rejected the proposals, saying they are against the spirit of the ILO and the labor rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Source: Yonhap news Agency