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S. Korea’s Yoo advances to final round in WTO leadership race

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee (AFP-Yonhap)
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee (AFP-Yonhap)

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee has advanced to the final round of two candidates in the race to become the next director general of the 365bet体育平台 Trade Organization.

Yoo and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala were shortlisted as finalists in the second round of voting held from Sept. 24 to Oct. 4, the WTO and Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday.

The two women will now go head-to-head in the third and final round of consultations, scheduled to run from later this month until Nov. 6. The winner will be selected by consensus among the 164 member states. If no consensus is reached, a vote could take place as a last resort. 

The results are due to be announced in early November at the latest.

If Yoo emerges as the winner, she would not only be the first Korean but the first woman to helm the multilateral body, which is beset with challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic and the US-China trade war. Two Koreans have made unsuccessful bids in the past, in 1994 and 2012.

The WTO has been leaderless since former Director General Robert Azevedo stepped down a year early on Aug. 31 after seven years at the helm.

The race initially started with eight contenders. Three candidates -- from Mexico, Egypt and Moldova -- were removed after the first round.

During the just-closed second round of “confessionals,” in which all member states confidentially indicated their preferences, three more were eliminated: Liam Fox of Britain, Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri of Saudi Arabia and Amina Mohamed of Kenya.

To win the WTO job, Yoo will have to beat the formidable Nigerian candidate who has been widely seen by member states as a frontrunner. Okonjo-Iweala, who served twice as the African country‘s trade minister and once as its foreign minister, is well known among inter365bet体育网址 organizations. She currently chairs the Global Vaccine Alliance, and was formerly the No. 2 official at the 365bet体育平台 Bank, where she worked for 25 years.

Yoo’s chances of success are reliant on support from the big four of the US, the EU, China and Japan.

During the second round, the 27-member EU endorsed both Yoo and Okonjo-Iweala. It is unclear who it will back in the final phase. The US and China haven’t openly expressed who they are supporting throughout the race, but would likely back whoever appears favorable to each country amid the ongoing trade war between the two superpowers. The upcoming US presidential election on Nov. 3 could impact the outcome of the result as well, observers say.

Japan is another concern for Yoo, amid Seoul’s and Tokyo’s ongoing trade and diplomatic dispute centering on the issue of wartime forced labor and how Japan should atone for its past misdeeds. Japanese media outlets say Tokyo is likely to rally behind Nigeria, as a Korean taking the helm of the body is seen as a threat to Japanese trade.

Since Yoo began her campaign in July, she has pledged to reform the WTO to make it more “relevant, resilient and responsive,” taking on a multilateral institution that faced long-standing challenges even before the COVID-19 pandemic crippled global trade and caused a deep recession. She also vowed to revitalize the organization’s dispute-settlement function, and play a mediator role in escalating tension between Washington and Beijing.

The WTO’s central function as the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes has been crippled since December, when US President Donald Trump blocked the appointment of two new judges to the appellate body. Since then, at a time of growing protectionism and tariff wars, the WTO has not been able to rule on new trade disputes between member countries. 

Yoo was appointed Korea’s trade minister in February 2019, becoming the first woman to attain the office since the ministry was established in 1948. Over the course of her nearly 25-year public service career in trade, she has led major bilateral negotiations, including free trade talks with the US, China, Singapore, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as Seoul’s chief negotiator.

From early on in the selection race, the Korean government has made a concerted effort to campaign on Yoo’s behalf. President Moon Jae-in has carried out “telephone diplomacy” and asked other 365bet体育平台 leaders to back Yoo, while the Foreign Ministry has asked for other nations’ support at high-level meetings.

Since July, Yoo has visited Switzerland, France and the US to meet with country representatives and ask for their support.

By Ahn Sung-mi (