Yoo Myung-hee: Glass ceiling-breaker aiming for WTO chief

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SEOUL: South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, one of two women vying to be the next head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is known at home as a glass ceiling-breaker in a still male-dominated society.

An English literature graduate of the elite Seoul National University, she set aside her dreams of a literary career to become a trade ministry civil servant in 1995.

“There were no veteran trade experts in South Korea back then and I decided to pursue my career in trade thinking the country would need one,” she told the Seoul Economic Daily in 2018.

Initially working in the ministry’s WTO department, she has risen up the ranks – taking time out to take a doctorate in law at Vanderbilt University in the United States – and handling a number of free trade negotiations along the way.

They include both South Korea’s 2014 FTA with China and the 2018 revision of its deal with the US demanded by President Donald Trump.

READ: Commentary: To save international trade and itself, the WTO needs a reboot

She has earned a reputation as a tough negotiator, staging a walkout during talks with Singapore in 2004 in a move she later said was “thoroughly calculated”.

“The next day, we had the deal that we wanted.”

The South Korean government describes her as an “innovator, negotiator, strategist and pioneer” and she was appointed trade minister last year by the centre-left President Moon Jae-in.

But until April’s legislative election, her husband Choung Tae-ok was a member of parliament (MP) for the main conservative opposition.

READ: Commentary: Outlook for globlisation fuzzy without US leadership

Their relationship generated headlines when she attended a parliamentary hearing and he was among the MPs present, although they did not spar on the floor.

The couple have two children and Yoo told the Seoul Economic Daily: “I recently watched Game of Thrones that my daughter likes and read a book on Elon Musk together with her.

“A child is like an organic body that feeds on parents’ love and time. I try to be with them whenever possible.”

If elected Yoo, 53, will become the most senior South Korean on the global diplomatic stage since Ban Ki-moon, who was United Nations secretary-general between 2007 and 2016.

“Her life in Korea has been defined by Korea’s increasing prosperity and growth in the multilateral trading world,” her ministry said of her.

But her candidacy comes amid mounting trade tensions between Washington and Beijing and growing protectionist sentiment around the world.

In her nomination statement in June, she said she and South Korea owed the WTO a “debt of gratitude” for its “remarkable growth, from a relatively impoverished country recovering from the ruins of war to one of the largest trading nations”.

But with the threat of protectionism and trade tensions, she went on, the WTO faced a “trust deficit” with many “questioning the relevance” of the trading system it represented.

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