US Backs South Korean Candidate Throwing Spanner in WTO Leadership Race

US Backs South Korean Candidate Throwing Spanner in WTO Leadership Race
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee (L) in Geneva on July 16, 2020; and Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (R) in Geneva on July 15, 2020, as they give press conferences as part of their application process to head the WTO as Director General. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

GENEVA—The World Trade Organization’s bid to select a new leader was plunged into uncertainty on Wednesday after the United States rejected the proposed candidate for the position of director-general of the global trade watchdog.

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala came out ahead of South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee as the preferred candidate by member countries, with one to become the organization’s first female leader. The two were selected from five candidates, including Kenya’s Amb. Amina C. Mohamed, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, and Britain’s Dr. Liam Fox, who had advanced to the second round of consultations with WTO members.
Just six days before the U.S. election in which trade is a hot topic, Washington struck another blow at the WTO, which U.S. President Donald Trump has described as “broken” and biased towards China.

The Trump administration has already paralyzed the WTO’s role as global arbiter on trade by blocking appointments to its appeals panel. Now it threatens to render it leaderless for weeks or months to come.

The WTO itself has called a meeting for Nov. 9, less than a week after the election, by which time its General Council Chair hopes to have secured full backing for Okonjo-Iweala, a 66-year-old former finance minister and World Bank managing director. She is also a dual U.S.-Nigerian citizen.

The decision needs to be approved by consensus, however, meaning any of the 164 WTO members could block her appointment.

After weeks of consultations, the General Council Chair and two co-facilitators, the “troika” charged with finding a successor to Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, announced at a meeting in Geneva on Wednesday that the former Nigerian finance minister should be the next chief as she had secured cross-regional backing.

“All of the delegations that expressed their views today expressed very strong support for the process, for the troika and for the outcome. Except for one,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters after the closed-door meeting. The one was the United States.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office later released a statement officially backing Yoo, praising her as a successful trade negotiator with the skills needed to lead the trade body at a “very difficult time.”

“It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field,” it said. Critics of Okonjo-Iweala say she lacks technical knowledge of multilateral trade talks.

A spokeswoman for Okonjo-Iweala said she was “immensely humbled” by the backing of the WTO’s selection committee and hoped for a swift conclusion to the process.

Currently chair of the GAVI vaccine alliance board, Okonjo-Iweala has said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

Many members, including China and the United States, had declined to name their preference publicly before Wednesday although some African, Caribbean, and other states had voiced support for Okonjo-Iweala during the four-month selection process. The European Union endorsed her on Oct. 26.

The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Azevedo stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.

By Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay. The Epoch Times contributed to this report.