|Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, a finalist in the race for the World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general, leaves for Europe at the Incheon International Airport, Oct. 13. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
For the first time, Korea has produced a finalist in the race for the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The distinction achieved by Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee is raising hopes among her countrymen of a first-ever Korean to lead the global trade body, after two previous bids in the mid 1990s and 2013.
Minister Yoo and Nigerian-born economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a U.S. citizen, were recently shortlisted from a pool of candidates with sterling credentials to enter the final round of the selection process for WTO director-general, which take place between Oct. 19 and Oct. 27. The result of the race is expected to be announced early November.
To be selected as the chief of the WTO, it is important that a candidate is not vetoed by any member country, according to presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok.
In this regard, concerns have been rising here that an ongoing trade dispute at the WTO between Korea and Japan, as well as other bilateral conflicts with the neighboring country, could negatively influence the final stages of her campaign.
Focus on credentials & vision for WTO
Tension has been on the rise between the two Asian neighbors on outstanding issues from their shared history, such as the compensation for Korean victims of wartime forced labor as well as sexual slavery during Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of Korea. But some experts say the diplomatic and trade disputes between the two countries do not necessarily mean that they cannot find common ground on timely and global challenges such as WTO reform.
"The diplomatic issues have driven the two countries apart, but that does not mean Japan has turned its back on all issues regarding Korea," Ahn Duk-geun, a professor of international trade law and policy at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University, told The Korea Times. "For example, Tokyo recently eased entry restrictions on business people traveling from Korea. On some issues, there is contention, but on others, cooperation is ongoing between the two countries. In particular, Japan has taken a very active part in the discussions on WTO reform. Whoever ends up in the final round, Japan is expected to make a final decision from a bigger perspective."
Since Yoo announced her bid in June, she has faced questions from the international media about her thoughts on how her country's conflicts with Japan may influence her campaign. But she has underlined the similarities of the two countries as two of Asia's biggest beneficiaries of free trade and has been reaching out to her colleagues in Japan, asking them to focus on her qualifications and vision.
"I believe that the Japan factor is something that our candidate will ultimately be able to overcome," an expert in international trade studies said. Japan has not overtly protested Yoo's candidacy so far.
Asia vs. Africa
Another hurdle for Korea may be a widening view in the global community that it's Africa's "turn" to take the post of WTO director-general.
Not only that, Yoo's rival Okonjo-Iweala, a two-time finance minister and a former foreign minister, brings with her a stellar resume which includes a long career at the World Bank.
|This combination of file pictures created on Oct. 7 shows South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, left, in Geneva on July 16; and Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Geneva, July 15, as they give press conferences as part of their application process to head the WTO as director-general. AFP-Yonhap|
Except for a brief stint at the presidential office in 2014 and 2015, Yoo is a career trade official and does not have experience in working at an international organization. On the other hand, the Nigerian economist is seen as lacking direct experience with trade affairs, unlike Yoo who has undertaken a pivotal role in Korea's FTA negotiations with the U.S., China and the EU. The experience in dealing with both the U.S. and China gives her an edge as an effective mediator at a time when the U.S.-China trade row has emerged as one of the biggest challenges for the global trade organization, according to some experts.
"The advancement of Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Minister Yoo Myung-hee to the final round of the selection of the DG of the WTO indicates the strong background and accomplishments of each candidate, and the importance of the region each candidate hails from," Rohinton P. Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Ontario, Canada, told The Korea Times. "In addition to her keen expertise in trade and policy issues, Minister Yoo has emphasized a number of features embodied in her CV and views: the need for innovative thinking and decisive action to guide the WTO out of its current stalemated condition; her position as a potential bridge between the U.S. and China; her interest in doing the same between developed and developing countries; and her understanding, based on South Korea's development experience, of navigating global rules while maintaining a strong industrial policy and domestic growth orientation," he said.
"However, there is also a broad sense that Minister Okonjo-Iweala represents new and important directions for the WTO. Her resume is also compelling, and the WTO has never been headed by an African. It might be that the Asia-Pacific region is seen to have had a good shot running the WTO in the past ― Mike Moore from New Zealand (1999-2002) and Supachai Panitchpakdi from Thailand (2002-2005). In inter-governmental processes, such considerations do play a role," Medhora added. "Whoever is the eventual successful candidate, it will be a life-capping accomplishment for each candidate, and an important place in the global spotlight for her home country. The WTO is a part of the troika of Bretton Woods institutions (along with the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank) that are the stewards of the global economy. Their influence may be waning, but they are still the only truly multilateral institutions we have to manage globalization."
With a neck-and-neck race ahead, President Moon Jae-in and his administration will continue to make efforts for Yoo's success, the presidential office said.
|Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, right in the front row, exchanges a joint declaration regarding FTA talks with Ramon Lopez, left in the front row, secretary of trade and industry of the Philippines, during a ceremony following a bilateral summit between the leaders of the two countries, Nov. 25, 2019, at a hotel in Busan. Standing in the back are President Moon Jae-in, right, and Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. President Moon appointed Yoo, the nation's first trade minister, in February 2019. Korea Times file|
The Korean leader once again underscored why the nation's first female trade minister is best suited for the job during a ceremony, Friday, at Cheong Wa Dae to present credentials to new ambassadors from six countries ― Oman, Pakistan, Chile, Austria, Vietnam and Germany. "I hope you will show continued enthusiasm and support for Yoo, who is trying to become the WTO DG with a vision for WTO reform, restoration of the multilateral trading system centering around the WTO, and inclusive growth," Moon said.
Yoo resumed her campaigning in Europe Oct. 13 right after her meeting with President Moon at Cheong Wa Dae earlier this week.
Yoo's arrival in the third and final round prompted Cheong Wa Dae to hold a meeting Oct. 12 chaired by President Moon to discuss strategies for the coming weeks. Second deputy director of the National Security Office Kim Hyun-chong, a former member of the WTO Appellate Body and two-time trade minister both in the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration and in this administration, was among the participants supporting her campaign. "It is important to underline the cause for restoring the multilateral trading system," Kim said. Yoo told the meeting that she will make every effort to become a director-general with support from all 164 member states.