By CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — As the World Trade Organization closes in on a decision for its next leader, the U.S. issued a contrarian statement voicing support for the South Korean candidate over the popular Nigerian finalist.
The Geneva-based global trade regulators announced earlier this month their two finalists for the next director-general position: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea. The shortlist made international headlines as it would mark the first time in the WTO’s history it will be led by a woman.
If appointed, Okonjo-Iwaela, who has been endorsed by the European Union, would also be the body’s first African leader.
The office of the U.S. Trade Representative on Wednesday, however, issued a statement supporting the selection of Yoo, saying the intergovernmental organization “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”
“Minister Yoo is a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker,” the statement added. “She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization.”
Yoo currently serves as South Korea’s minister for trade, and is also the first woman to hold that role.
The statement also noted that it is currently “a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade,” likely alluding to the ongoing trade wars with China.
“There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations,” the U.S. agency said. “The WTO is badly in need of major reform.”
Despite U.S. opposition, Okonjo-Iweala, who is the former finance minister of Nigeria and former second in command at the World Bank, has received overwhelming support from other member nations of the WTO.
“She clearly carried the largest support by Members in the final round and she clearly enjoyed broad support from Members from all levels of development and all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process,” WTO general counsel chair David Walker of New Zealand said Wednesday as he recommended her appointment.
It’s unclear how the United States’ choice will impact the appointment of the next WTO head, but it has thrown a wrench in the process. It also comes as tensions between the U.S. and the global trade watchdog were already elevated due to the Trump administration repeatedly attacking the WTO, accusing it of treating the U.S. unfairly.
Walker called for a “special meeting” of the WTO’s General Council on Nov. 9 in a statement Wednesday, “where the sole item on the agenda will be the appointment of the next Director-General of the WTO.” At this meeting, the members would be tasked with coming to a consensus on the next director-general. The meeting notably comes after the U.S. presidential election.
Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iwaela tweeted Thursday that she is happy for the success and continued progress of her bid for WTO director-general.
“Very humbled to be declared the candidate with the largest, broadest support among members & most likely to attract consensus,” she added. “We move on to the next step on Nov 9, despite hiccups. We’re keeping the positivity going!”
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