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Yoo vies to become WTO’s first female boss

Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee speaks to reporters at the Incheon International Airport, before taking off to Geneva, Switzerland on Saturday. (Yonhap)
Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee speaks to reporters at the Incheon International Airport, before taking off to Geneva, Switzerland on Saturday. (Yonhap)

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee is a woman of many firsts. In the 70-year history of the Trade Ministry, she is the first woman to attain the top position. This is after climbing the ladder within the agency, led mostly by men. This year the 53-year-old minister has set her sights on yet another milestone: becoming the first woman and the first Korean to lead the World Trade Organization.

Currently in Geneva to attend the WTO’s General Council meeting, slated to start Wednesday, Yoo will promote herself as the most suitable candidate to succeed current Director General Roberto Azevedo, who is stepping down in August a year early.

During a three-day session, she and seven other candidates will deliver presentations outlining their visions for the WTO, followed by a Q&A session in front of 160 member countries. 

Other high-profile contenders -- from Nigeria, Egypt, Moldova, the UK, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Mexico -- all vow to salvage the 25-year-old multilateral body, which is beset with challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic and the US-China trade war.

The prevailing view in Korea is that Yoo stands a good chance at the job, with her expertise and experience in ushering in weighty trade deals.

A biography released by the WTO describes her as “a skilled negotiator with deep knowledge and insights into the details of various areas of trade agreements.”

“Yoo is a well-respected leader and an expert in trade policy circles within Korea and abroad,” the Korean government said in nominating her last month. “She has a proven track-record of designing, negotiating and implementing trade deals as well as developing innovative trade-related policies in domestic, bilateral and multilateral settings.”

Yoo 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.

The WTO’s central function as the ultimate arbiter of trade disputes has been down 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.

“I will use all of my capacity, including trade experience, information and my network built through 25 years of public career experience, to reform and restore the WTO,” she said last month when announcing her candidacy. Yoo believes Korea, a midsized economy, can become a bridge connecting developing countries with advanced countries, based on the country’s experience of development through trade and multilateralism.

Born in Seoul in 1967, Yoo graduated from Seoul National University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s in public policy. She also holds a JD from Vanderbilt University Law School in the US.

She joined the public service in 1992 after passing the nation’s public administration examination. In 1996 she joined the Trade Ministry as its first female trade official, at a time when the ministry was making a serious effort to promote gender diversity. Since then, she has worked in the trade sector across various levels at multiple government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Korean Embassy to China, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

During her trade career, she led major bilateral negotiations, including free trade talks with the US, China, Singapore, India and ASEAN, as Seoul’s chief negotiator.

Local media even dubbed her “Korea’s Carla Hills” -- referring to the first female trade representative in the US, who served from 1989-1993 and played a key role in major deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 2018, Yoo was appointed deputy minister of trade, becoming the first woman to achieve the rank since the ministry was established in 1948. The next year she was promoted to trade minister, breaking the glass ceiling once again.

Her rise proceeded in spite of administration changes, an indication of her unmatched expertise in international trade. She served as a foreign press spokesperson for Cheong Wa Dae under the conservative Park Geun-hye administration. Her husband, Jeong Tae-ok, is a former lawmaker affiliated with the main opposition United Future Party.

The Korean government is making a concerted effort to campaign for the WTO job on Yoo’s behalf, after two failed attempts to install a Korean in the post. Kim Chul-soo, former minister of trade, industry and energy, made a bid in 1994 and Bark Tae-ho, former trade minister, entered the race in 2012.

Seoul’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha asked for support for Yoo during her meeting with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayde Al Nahyan last week. President Moon Jae-in also requested support from European countries during a virtual summit with EU leaders last month.

But it’s not going to be an easy race.

Two other women are widely viewed as front-runners. Amina Mohamed, currently Kenya’s sports minister and a former foreign affairs minister who has chaired the WTO’s General Council, and Ngozi Okonjo-lweala of Nigeria, a two-time finance minister who was the No. 2 official at the World Bank, are both well known in Geneva. If either wins, she will be the WTO’s first African boss as well as the first woman in the role. On the other hand, the African Union’s vote is likely to be split since Egypt is also putting a candidate forward.

Another concern is Japan. Amid Seoul 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 the Japanese government is likely to rally behind Nigeria. A Korean in the position is seen as a threat to Japanese trade.

Finally, Yoo’s chances boil down to how much support Korea gains from key WTO players the US, the EU and China.

After the three-day General Council meeting, the candidates will have until September to campaign. The final selection hinges on a consensus among all member states, with candidates being eliminated in turn.

By Ahn Sung-mi (