WTO Director-General selection process — withdrawal of Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo important step to consensus behind Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

Press accounts report that Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee announced today that she would be withdrawing as a candidate to become the next Director-General of the WTO. 

Minister Yoo and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala had been the two remaining candidates entering the third round of consultations in October 2020, and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala had been announced by the Chairman of the General Council as the candidate most likely to attract consensus following the third round. The United States and Korea had spoken before the informal heads of delegation meeting where the WTO Members were provided the results of the consultations. While the procedures being followed were those agreed to by the General Council in late 2002 and followed in earlier selections of the Director-General, Korea failed to withdraw its candidate as required by the procedures and the United States indicated it would not agree to a consensus behind Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, also contrary to the intended spirit of the procedures and prior actions of Members in the 2005 and 2013 selection processes. See WT/L/509, para. 18 (“The outcome of the consultations shall be reported to the membership at each stage. It is understood that the candidate or candidates least likely to attract consensus shall withdraw. The number of candidates expected to withdraw at each stage shall be determined according to the initial number of candidates, and made known in advance. This process shall be repeated in successive stages on the basis of a revised slate of candidates each time, with the aim of establishing consensus around one candidate.”).

I have provided a lot of coverage of the 2020-21 slection process and details of prior actions can be found by reference to those earlier posts.

What press articles are reporting Minister Yoo said on announcing her withdrawal

The Kyodo News article quotes the Minister as saying, “‘With the vacancy state of the WTO head being prolonged, the future of the WTO is also getting unclear,’ Yoo told a press conference. ‘I therefore have decided to withdraw from candidacy following close arbitration and agreement with the United States, our strong ally.’” The article also indicates that the Ministry had indicated that Minister Yoo would soon “notify the WTO of her decision.”

The South China Morning Post article indicates that the WTO had not as yet received formal notification of Minister Yoo’s withdrawal, and there is nothing on the WTO webpage as of this writing that indicates such a notification has been received.

The Bloomberg article states in part that –

“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.’”

Next steps

One would expect that the formal notification of withdrawal from Korea to the WTO will be received in the next week or so. The focus then shifts to the United States and whether the U.S. will indicate it is willing to be part of the consensus behind Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or not. Many have urged the Biden Administration to join the consensus. The comments of Minister Yoo indicating consultations with various trading partners, including the United States, suggests that the U.S. is comfortable with her withdrawal. Obviously with the withdrawal of Minister Yoo, there is only one candidate from the 2020 process remaining. So unless the United States opts to fight on for the consideration of alternative individuals (including restarting or redoing the selection process), the likely question is simply one of timing.

Timing for the U.S. making a change in position of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for WTO Director-General likely, but not necessarily, will relate to when President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Trade Representative is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in. The confirmation hearing has not yet been set. Moreover, the Senate moves to the impeachment trial of former President Trump next week which could take up several weeks. It is understood that Senate Committees can hold hearings but can’t refer nominations to the full Senate for approval during the trial. Thus, it is unlikely that the new USTR will be confirmed in the next few weeks.

The President has taken other actions involving international agreements or organizations without waiting for Senate confirmation of cabinet or other senior officials (e.g., rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and revoking withdrawal from the World Health Organization. So it is possible that the President and his current senior team will decide on the WTO DG without waiting for Katherine Tai to be confirmed.

The Chair of the General Council can call a special meeting of the General Council at any time for the purpose of considering the recommendation he and his facilitators make on the selection of the next Director-General. That said, the next regularly scheduled General Council meeting is set for March 1-2.


Since late October 2020, there were always going to be two actions needed to resolve the Director-General selection process. The first has now been announced but not yet notified, the withdrawal of Minister Yoo from the process. The second, and remaining issue, is the change of position by the United States to be willing to join the consensus behind Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. If Minister Yoo has been in contact with the U.S., as reported in the press articles, it is likely that the U.S. is both supportive of her withdrawal and seriously considering joining the consensus behind the remaining candidate. Hopefully, by early to mid-March that second step will occur, and the WTO can appoint Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General.