The US has officially backed South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee for the WTO’s top job, but a majority of member states, including the EU, have supported a rival bid from Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

South Korea is still campaigning for its candidate, Yoo Myung-hee, to be named the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on November 9.  

Member nations are due to select the successor to Roberto Azevedo — who stepped down from the WTO’s top job at the end of August, a year before his term ended — and the choice has been narrowed down from eight to just two names.

On the shortlist alongside Yoo, currently serving as the South Korean trade minister, is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister. Whatever the decision, the all-female shortlist means that the WTO will for the first time be headed by a woman. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has in recent weeks been campaigning hard for Yoo.

The EU, however, decided in late October to throw its united weight behind Okonjo-Iweala.

All is not lost

Japan has not publicly stated a preference for either of the candidates, but it is strongly rumored that Tokyo is also backing the Nigerian candidate because there is concern that a South Korean head of the WTO would side with Seoul in the ongoing trade disputes between South Korea and Japan. 

“Ban Ki-moon was the secretary-general of the United Nations from 2007 to 2016 and ever since then there has been a high degree of enthusiasm for Koreans to play important roles in international organizations,” Park Saing-in, an economist with the Graduate School of Public Administration at Seoul National University, told DW.  

“Trade and business are obviously important to the nation and that is another reason why the president is so keen for Yoo to take this position,” he added.  

Park admits that it appears that two-thirds of the international community favor the Nigerian candidate. All is not lost, however, as the United States is backing Yoo’s candidacy because the current administration in Washington believes that Okonjo-Iweala is too close to China, with which the US is locked in a trade dispute. 

US President Donald Trump has described the WTO as “horrible” and biased towards China. His administration has also paralyzed the body’s role as global arbiter on trade by blocking appointments to its appeals panel.

“Things might settle down if there is a new administration in the US, but everything is just very confused at the moment,” said Park.

Japan isn’t supporting?

Japan, on the other hand, is very unlikely to change its position. “South Korea and Japan are locked into a trade conflict after Tokyo unilaterally imposed restrictions on exports of key chemicals to Korea last year and Seoul has appealed that decision to the WTO for a ruling,” he said. 

Tokyo insists that it introduced the new restrictions on chemicals that are critical to South Korea’s high-tech manufacturing industry out of concern that banned technology that originated in Japan is finding its way to North Korea as the South’s export controls are too lax.

Seoul claims the move is retaliation for South Korea going back on agreements on matters of history signed by the two governments.