(2nd LD) Yoo drops bid to become new WTO head, clears way for Nigerian candidate

February 5, 2021

 South Korean candidate Yoo Myung-hee on Friday withdrew her bid to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), clearing the way for her Nigerian rival to take the post.

“Due to the prolonged vacancy of the leadership at the WTO, the future of the organization also has become uncertain,” Yoo said in a press briefing in Seoul.

“To speed up the consensus building among the member countries on selecting a new director-general, I have decided to renounce my candidacy through close cooperation with the United States, our strong ally.”

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Feb. 5, 2021. (Yonhap)
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee speaks during a press conference held in Seoul on Feb. 5, 2021. (Yonhap)
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Feb. 5, 2021. (Yonhap)

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee speaks during a press conference in Seoul on Feb. 5, 2021. (Yonhap)

The U.S., under the previous Donald Trump administration, had expressed support for Yoo, whereas the European Union rooted for her rival.

“Washington, which showed strong support for my candidacy, also respects the decision to step down from the race,” Yoo said, hinting that she has consulted with the new Joe Biden administration as well.

“Trade authorities of South Korea and the U.S. have been working closely under both the Trump and Biden administrations,” she added, ruling out allegations that Seoul and Washington had a disagreement.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a statement that South Korea will continue to make various contributions to rebuilding and enhancing multilateralism.

The WTO said in October that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria has garnered more support than Yoo from the WTO’s 164 member states.

The process to pick a new leader at the Geneva-based body is based on the consensus, not a majority vote. Accordingly, Seoul had believed that it could still have room to turn the tide.

Yoo was one of the two finalists. Candidates from six other countries dropped out of the competition in previous rounds.

During her campaign, Yoo vowed to focus on rebuilding trust in the multilateral trade system by making it more “relevant, resilient and responsive” if she were picked as the new WTO leader.

Yoo was the third South Korean to run for the top post of the Geneva-based trade body. Two South Koreans made unsuccessful bids in 1994 and 2012.

Okonjo-Iweala, meanwhile, had also been cited as one of the most competitive candidates, based on her experience of working at the World Bank. She served two terms as Nigerian finance minister and as a foreign minister.

The WTO’s leadership opening comes amid growing trade protectionism around the globe, which has been escalating over the past few years, sparked by the tension between Washington and Beijing.

The new WTO head is expected to be requested to establish a post-pandemic trade paradigm.

“The director-general of the WTO and South Korea will actively work together as we did in the past,” Yoo said, adding that Asia’s No. 4 economy will spare no efforts in revitalizing the role of the WTO.

The trade minister said the WTO is currently facing various hurdles, including the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, along with growing protectionism.

Global warming and the transition towards the digital economy are also among tasks for the Geneva-based body, she added.

Okonjo-Iweala is set to become the first female chief in the organization’s history.

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