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Blow for Yoo in WTO race, as EU, Japan back rival

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

With the EU and Japan reportedly backing Nigeria’s World Trade Organization candidate, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee faces an uphill battle in the race to claim the top job of the international trade body.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s finance minister and foreign minister, and Yoo are facing off to become the first female chief in the WTO’s 25-year history, replacing Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down a year early in August after seven years at the helm.

The European countries on Tuesday decided to throw their weight behind Okonjo-Iweala as the next director general of the WTO, further cementing her front-runner status, according to Agence France-Presse. The 27-nation bloc has usually reached a consensus beforehand and endorsed a single candidate at major international organizations’ elections.

The EU nations had struggled to forge a consensus on the WTO candidate, reports say, as a group of Eastern European countries and Baltic nations were behind South Korea, going against the majority supporting Nigeria. But the countries decided to endorse Okonjo-Iweala to strengthen mutual trust between the EU and Africa.

Japan has not publicly announced its decision, but reports from early on suggest that it will back Nigeria on concern that a Korean taking the helm of the body could be a threat to Japanese trade, as the two countries continue to lock horns over issues of trade and wartime history.

Earlier this month, Okonjo-Iweala said that she had received the backing of 79 countries, including the 55 African Union countries and Caribbean and Pacific States. Adding the latest count of 27 votes from Europe, she easily surpasses a majority out of the 164 countries that comprise the WTO.

But Seoul officials say it is still premature to accept defeat, as a consensus among the member states is required for the winner to emerge. This means if a country vetoes the majority decision, the selection process could drag on longer.

With the still-undisclosed position of China and the US likely backing Yoo, Seoul hopes the result could turn in favor for its trade minister.

“As the final result hasn’t been made yet, the government’s stance is make an all-out effort until the end,” said Lee Jae-woong, the ministry’s deputy spokesperson, during a regular press briefing.

The WTO completes the third and final phase of consultations -- where each member state indicates their preferences -- on Tuesday. The trade body hopes to name the new leader by Nov. 7 by hammering out consensus. But observers say the US presidential election on Nov. 3 could be a decisive factor.

The race initially started with eight contenders. Three candidates -- from Mexico, Egypt and Moldova -- were removed after the first round, followed by three more -- from Britain, Saudi Arabia and Kenya -- who were eliminated after the second round.

The Korean government is making its last-ditch effort to campaign on Yoo’s behalf. On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeu to back Yoo during their phone conversation, continuing his “telephone diplomacy.”

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.

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 (