Okonjo-Iweala’s Path to WTO Clears Hurdle as Korean Quits Race

  • Trump blocked Nigerian candidate and Biden hasn’t endorsed yet
  • Former U.S. officials have urged Biden to pick Okonjo-Iweala

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee ended her campaign to lead the World Trade Organization, leaving former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the likely candidate for the job and setting up a key decision by WTO members to approve her appointment.

Yoo decided after discussions with the U.S. and other major nations, and took various issues into account including the need to revitalize the multilateral organization, according to a statement from Korea’s trade ministry on Friday.

“There was no consensus,” Yoo said. “So we needed enough time for in-depth consultations with important members, including the U.S.”

Her withdrawal could help thaw the deadlocked race to lead the Geneva-based WTO at a moment when the organization is struggling to surmount a series of crises that have diminished its role in the international trading system.
Dozens of former U.S. government officials have urged President Joe Biden to endorse Okonjo-Iweala after the Trump administration blocked her selection in 2020, making the U.S. and Korea the only holdouts favoring Yoo. That opposition was enough to halt the selection process because WTO decisions are made on the basis of a consensus of its members.

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By quitting the race, Yoo would appear to be clearing Okonjo-Iweala’s path. But as the Biden administration forms its trade team, few clues have emerged publicly about whether it will lift U.S. opposition to Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy. The U.S. mission to the WTO in Geneva didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg’s request for comment.

Okonjo-Iweala congratulated Yoo on her “long campaign” and welcomed South Korea’s commitment to rebuilding and enhancing multilateralism, the Nigerian’s spokeswoman Molly Toomey said in a statement.

“The WTO must turn its focus to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic recovery,” Toomey said. “Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the WTO.”

First Woman

The 66-year-old Nigerian economist, who is also a U.S. citizen, emerged as the front-runner for the WTO director-general post last year. If the U.S., Korea and the other 162 members join a consensus to appoint Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO can announce a meeting to confirm her appointment within a matter of days.

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If confirmed, Okonjo-Iweala would be the first woman and the first African to lead the organization in its 25-year history.

New Trade Chief
Okonjo-Iweala set to become the first African and woman to head the WTO

John Denton, secretary-general of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce, urged a quick appointment of Okonjo-Iweala.

“With geopolitical tensions high, the global economy in recession and ‘vaccine nationalism’ threatening an equitable recovery, there is now no reason for further delay in filling this critical role with the well-qualified candidate at the ready,” he said. The WTO has been leaderless since September, when former Director-General Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year before his term was set to expire. Since then the WTO has been overseen by four unelected deputy directors general.

The appointment of a new WTO chief will help the organization confront an array of internal crises that have ground its work to a near halt.


The trade forum is largely dysfunctional and all three pillars of its work are under threat. The WTO has struggled to produce meaningful multilateral trade agreements, its trade monitoring function consistently underperforms and former President Donald Trump neutralized its appellate body in 2019, which effectively sidelined the organization’s role as the global arbiter of international commerce.

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Though the power of the WTO leader is limited by the directives of its members, the director-general can convene meetings, and offer suggestions and strategies for addressing conflicts in the global trading system.

Okonjo-Iweala has pledged to take a more active role as director-general and to act as a sounding board to try to find common ground among the trade body’s disparate membership.



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