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US backs Yoo against rival, throwing WTO race up in the air

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee (left) is competing against Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria`s ex-finance minister. (AFP-Yonhap)
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee (left) is competing against Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria`s ex-finance minister. (AFP-Yonhap)

The World Trade Organization’s leadership race has been thrown up in the air, as the US blocked the Nigerian front-runner and decided to put its weight behind South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, despite her failure to win majority support from the member states.

At a meeting in Geneva on Wednesday, the WTO’s selection panel recommended Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director general, as she won the backing of the vast majority of the multilateral body’s 164 member states.

But the US, critical of the WTO’s dealings in trade, raised a last-minute objection against Okonjo-Iweala and opted for Seoul’s candidate. As the final appointment requires a consensus by all member nations, the possibility of a deadlock remains if the US does not budge.

After a WTO delegate meeting, spokesman Keith Rockwell said the US remained a strong supporter of Yoo.

Later Wednesday, the Office of the US Trade Representative issued a statement officially endorsing Yoo, calling her “a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker.”

“She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization,” it said.

The USTR said it’s a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade, as there have been no multilateral negotiations in 25 years and the dispute settlement system has gotten “out of control.”

“The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field,” it said.

This comes after the WTO completed its third and final phase of consultations, where each member state indicated its preference as part of the process of selecting a director general to replace Brazilian Roberto Azevedo. Azevedo stepped down a year early in August after seven years at the helm.

During the latest round Okonjo-Iweala, who served as her country’s finance and foreign minister and was formerly the No. 2 official at the World Bank, was endorsed by 106 out of the 164 states, including the 27-member EU and the 55-member African Union, as well as Japan and China, according to media reports. The Seoul government, however, declined to confirm these details.

The results put Seoul in a tricky spot, as it will have to decide whether Yoo should step down and give her rival a smooth victory or keep going until Nov. 9, when the members meet again to discuss the appointment.

“The government is internally reviewing the future procedure and will make a decision after considering various matters,” Lee Jae-woong, deputy spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, said during a regular briefing Thursday.

The WTO’s Rockwell said there would likely be “frenzied activity” before the Nov. 9 general council meeting to secure the required consensus.

In the event that Washington continued to block Okonjo-Iweala, the winner could be determined through a members’ vote for the first time in WTO’s 25-year history.

In 1999, countries were divided between former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore and Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi. The members eventually compromised and gave each candidate a three-year-term, instead of having one person serve four years.

Observers say the US stance could be affected by the outcome of the presidential election on Nov. 3, as polls show incumbent President Donald Trump lags behind his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

The WTO race initially started with eight contenders. Three candidates -- from Mexico, Egypt and Moldova -- were eliminated after the first round and another three -- from Britain, Saudi Arabia and Kenya -- were dropped after the second.

Whoever is selected will become the first female chief in the WTO’s history.

By Ahn Sung-mi (