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[Contribution] Yoo Myung-hee, a leader to navigate WTO through challenging times

Rep. Song Young-gil
Rep. Song Young-gil

Yoo Myung-hee, minister for trade of South Korea, announced her bid to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, along with seven other candidates. These candidates are from the UK, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Mexico, Moldova, and Saudi Arabia. The candidates will be narrowed to five from voting among 164 members, with four votes for each member. Two candidates will then be shortlisted from two votes cast by each member, and ultimately, the appointment will be made in the final round.

Among the eight candidates, Yoo is the only minister currently in office. Coincidentally, she was born in 1967 when Korea acceded to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and started her career in trade when the WTO was born in 1995. In her 25 years’ career in trade, she has taken part in leading major trade negotiations, namely the Korea-US free trade agreement, Korea-China free trade agreement and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. In 2006, during the negotiation process for the Korea-US agreement under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, I was the chair of the special committee for Korea-US FTA in the ruling party, playing my part to support the deal.

Then, the Roh administration was sworn in with political support from progressive farmers, labor unions and civil groups. Most progressive organizations in Korea were against the idea of opening our agricultural market to US products. Nonetheless, President Roh had a firm belief that without dealing with open trade up front, there is no way that the progressive will become the mainstream of this country. I personally believed that a Korea-US agreement should not shut down our interactions with China and North Korea. I took efforts to add provisions to recognize products manufactured in North Korea’s Kaesong industrial park as Korean products.

I recall that Yoo and I worked together when she was leading the working groups of service and competition for the Korea-US FTA. We did our best to reflect balanced interests in the negotiation for the free trade agreement. I found her meticulous analysis and creative ideas very impressive. After my election as the mayor of Incheon in 2010, I was looking for a key senior member in the office. I was introduced to Jung Tae-ok, who was working at the Ministry of Public Administration and Safety. I could start building trust immediately as he was the husband of Yoo. Jung and I worked together for Incheon for nearly four years. 

Jung later served as the vice mayor of Daegu, and then started his political career as a member of parliament, becoming the spokesperson of the opposition party and bitterly criticized the current Moon Jae-in administration. Nevertheless, President Moon appointed Yoo as the Minister for Trade, as he and his office approved of her outstanding achievements over the years.

The WTO is at risk with heightening protectionism and trade disputes, as well as growing conflicts between the US and China. Economies increasingly do away with multilateralism and are growing toward an exclusive bilateralism and block system. However, if the WTO multilateral system does not work, developing and small economies will be disproportionately affected. As contactless trade and new forms of e-commerce expand in the post-COVID19 era, we have a greater call for the WTO’s transformation and reforms. We also call for new leadership, which will facilitate interests of underdeveloped and developed nations alike, and mediate the conflicts between the US and China.

South Korea rejected protectionism, with its development and prosperity underpinned by multilateral free trade. It successfully overcame poverty and became one of the top 10 largest trading nations. Yoo built her experience to deeply understand both the US and China based on her active engagement in both Korea-China and Korea-US free trade agreement deals. Now is the time for Yoo Myung-hee’s leadership to imbue and revitalize the WTO with her 25 years of professional experience in trade, strong ability to build ties with compassion and merits as the only working minister among candidates.

By Song Young-gil
Chair, Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee
National Assembly of the Republic of Korea

The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.