The Korean woman giving Africa a run for its money at WTO

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee who is eying the WTO director-general's seat.

Photo credit: Fabrice Coffrini | AFP

What you need to know:

  • They have premised their contests on garnering crucial bloc votes from their respect areas of origin.
  • Yoo has listed the current economic problems as challenges that will need a stronger WTO.
  • She is famed in Asia and her country with leading her mation’s delegation to trade talks with China and the US.
  • Although not yet made public, the Nigerian is expected to enjoy strong support from Africa.

Yoo Myung-hee was never a common name in Africa when the race for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) began in July. Now she could spoil the party for a continent that initially had three candidates for the director-general’s post.

Yet, Yoo is not really an underdog. Her birth date has coincidences with the global trade. In the year she was born — 1967 — the countries in the then General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) signed the final agreement in the Kennedy Round, including a framework on anti-dumping code. It is the same year that South Korea joined GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organisation.

By the time the WTO was being formed 25 years ago, she was just starting her civil service career, according to a biography on her website. Last week, the David Walker, the Chair of the WTO General Council said Ms Yoo — now South Korea’s Trade Minister — and Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will fight it out in the final hurdle after which one of them will become the new director-general of WTO.

Coming from divergent backgrounds, both Yoo and Ngozi, who are American educated, have vowed to reform the WTO if elected and have premised their contests on garnering crucial bloc votes from their respect areas of origin.

Economic problems

Yoo, who was given little chance at the start of the campaigns, has listed the current economic problems including what she called sluggish growth, weak demand, rising protectionism and Covid-19 as challenges that will need a stronger WTO.

“The global economy is under tremendous strain. This is why the WTO is more important than ever,” she said in her pitch to WTO members.

“[A] Crisis does not automatically lead to transformation. It is up to members to engage in sincere discussions and rise to the challenges in order to restore the multilateral trading system” which she argued must involve “going back to the basics…” of improving rules of negotiations, dispute resolutions and monitoring.

Yoo, as a career trade expert, is famed in Asia and her country with leading her mation’s delegation to trade talks with China and the US, both of which South Korea has an existing Foreign Trade Agreement (FTA) signed in 2014 (with China) and 2018 (with US).

Both Ngozi and Yoo have vowed to make the WTO attractive to member states to resolve their differences. But Yoo argues her experience negotiating with both US and China, both of which have recently almost paralysed the work of the WTO through their continual trade tiffs, makes her better positioned to help them iron out their differences.

The US failure to nominate representatives to the WTO appellate body has meant it cannot hear appeals. Yoo admits this weakness may in fact fuel more bilateral tiffs between countries if the one involving the US and China is not resolved sooner.

“I could understand some frustrations that some members have in regard to, especially, lack of progress at the WTO. The WTO for the last 25 years has not produced any major multilateral agreement except for the trade facilitation agreement,” she told a virtual debate organised by the Chatham House.

Moment of opportunity

Last week, she said the current global problems “can be our moment of opportunity to restore the multilateral trading system”.

“I am the DG candidate best suited to do so,” she said.

In fairness, the promise to strengthen multilateralism, weakening protectionism and enhancing rule-based trade is what every of the initial eight candidates proposed.

The WTO member have haggled over the nature of an agreement on fisheries subsidies and have debated, without success, the nature of regulations to tax or impose duty on digital products.

Ms Yoo says she hopes to facilitate an agreement within months of being elected. But, like most international bodies, she must fight the political interest playing out at the moment. Aware that the organisation has been criticised for never electing a woman, the South Koreans may have been smart to nominate a woman this time, having failed in their bid last time in 2013 when they put forward Mr Taeho Bark.

Yoo, who has rarely played her gender card in campaigns, received significant support from Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the EU. But these countries, most of who also endorsed the Nigerian, must now decide between the two.

Ms Yoo may top Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s experience in trade matters, even though the latter has argued her career as a development economist means she deals with trade policy issues most of the time. Yoo argued the WTO needs “trade experts and interest coordinators” saying it could bring in knowledge and networks needed for the reform.

The South Korean may give China second thoughts about her, given that Beijing could lose a chance to have a deputy director-general in case she wins, due to regional balance issues. But it could come back to the US-China tiffs. Details emerged later in the campaign that the Nigerian had obtained US citizenship before she entered the race. Her campaign secretariat has also been based in the US and often used the US Mission premises in Geneva to prepare lobbying.

US citizenship

Traditionally, the WTO doesn’t require declarations on multiple nationalities, as long as a member of the WTO nominates a candidate. Nigeria put forward Ngozi’s name, but given her US citizenship, would China see her as African or American? That could also determine who Beijing votes for.

Given the European Union endorsed both candidates in the second phase of the race, there is also a possibility of the bloc building their support around one candidate. That will depend on which countries the EU has built trading relations with.

South Korea, despite being a member of the WTO, has also agreed more than 50 bilateral ties with individual countries, something that could form a network of votes for their candidate.

Although not yet made public, the Nigerian is expected to enjoy strong support from Africa, after she received endorsements from the other two candidates who were dropped in the previous phases endorsed her. The continent has never led the WTO while Asian had one from Thailand. The organisation, however, does not have a written policy on regional rotational leadership, although it routinely encourages “diversity” from applicants.

Yoo, steering clear of regionalism, argues that the problems at WTO need a leader with a “balanced” view of both developed and developing nations. South Korea is technically still a developing nation at the WTO, even though last year it gave up trade privileges due to a developing nation. As there are no rules forcing countries to upgrade at the WTO, it means China, for example, may continue staying there as a developing country and enjoy special differential trade terms.

One thing though, South Korea is a strong ally of the US and even hosts Washington’s missile defence system, something which could still tilt the outcome of the vote.