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S. Korea’s Yoo advances to second round in race for top post at WTO

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

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee has advanced to the second round in the race to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization.  

The WTO announced the results of the first round of voting on Friday, selecting five of the eight candidates to proceed to the next round. They are Yoo, Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri from Saudi Arabia, Liam Fox from the UK, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria and Amina Mohamed from Kenya. Three other candidates -- from Egypt, Moldova and Mexico -- were excluded because they did not get enough votes. 

The Korean government said Yoo had advanced to the second round as a result of her qualifications and expertise as trade minister, as well as Seoul’s elevated status in light of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also acknowledged the pan-government cooperation and support for her bid from the early stages. 

It added that the member states had evaluated Yoo highly for her 25 years of expertise in trade, for the trust and leadership she had established by ushering in various trade deals with both developed and developing countries, and in view of Korea’s experience of achieving economic development through free trade. 

The second round of voting is set to run Sept. 24 to Oct. 6, when each member state will indicate a maximum of two picks and three more candidates will be eliminated. The two short-listed contenders will face each other in the final round, where the winner will be selected by consensus among the 164 member states. The results are due to be announced by early November at the latest. 

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

Yoo is set to return to Seoul from the US on Saturday, after a four-day trip to seek Washington’s support for her candidacy. In August she visited Geneva, followed by a trip to Paris in September, to meet with country representatives and ask for their support. The Korean government is also making a concerted effort to campaign on Yoo’s behalf. 

If successful Yoo would become the first Korean and the first woman to helm the multilateral body, which is beset with challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic and the US-China trade war. 

Since she began her campaign in July, Yoo 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.

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.

By Ahn Sung-mi (