South Korea and the European Union kicked off what they expect to be their final round of talks Monday to conclude a free trade agreement they hope will send a strong anti-protectionist message.

Negotiators began their eighth session of talks with smiles and a handshake in a conference room at South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Seoul's chief negotiator Lee Hye-min said they would be the "final round" in a process that began nearly two years ago and that a few outstanding issues needed to be resolved before they can send an agreement to trade ministers for final approval.

He did not say what the issues were, though automobile trade — in which South Korea enjoys a huge surplus — had been a drag on the negotiations.

An agreement would slash tariffs and other barriers to trade between what are already major commercial partners. Bilateral trade reached $98.4 billion in 2008. The EU is South Korea's second-largest trading partner behind China and its largest foreign investor.

South Korean officials said last week that if negotiators can reach a deal during their two days of talks, their respective trade ministers could announce the deal's formal conclusion on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit early next month in London.

Lee said the conclusion of the talks would send "a very clear and forceful message to the international community" that South Korea and the EU both "take a lead in the fight against protectionism as responsible members of the global community."

If a final deal is signed, it cannot take effect until it has been approved by South Korea's National Assembly and EU governments.

South Korea inked a free trade agreement with the United States in June 2007, though the accord has yet to be ratified amid political changes in both countries and the global financial crisis.