The Jakarta Post
Yoo Myung-he may have been on the mind of South Korean President Moon Jae-in when he received a telephone call from newly elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last Thursday. There was no official confirmation from either side as to whether President Moon openly asked the prime minister for support for Yoo’s nomination for the top post at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Even if Suga agreed to Moon’s plan, Yoo’s road to the WTO job remains long and winding as she has to compete with two other women from Nigeria and Kenya and two men from the United Kingdom and Egypt. Support from other countries is much needed, but for Moon at least one of the major hurdles has been cleared.
Moon’s top aides had told him that Japan was reluctant to back South Korea in the race for the WTO director-general’s post. But I do believe both Moon and Suga have reached a mutual understanding on this specific case, despite the complex and emotional feud between the two neighbors.
In their 20-minute conversation on Sept. 24, PM Suga expressed his hope that the two nations can put their conflict behind and promote bilateral cooperation in various fields instead. According to Japanese media the conversation took place at Moon’s request.
Moon failed to come to terms with Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, who lost patience after Seoul relentlessly demanded war compensation from Tokyo. Japan unexpectedly imposed economic restrictions to punish its neighbor.
In July last year, Japan decided to severely restrict exports of three key industrial materials that Korea’s chip and display industries need most. Seoul took the case to the WTO, saying Japan was retaliating against the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on new compensation. The WTO is scheduled to issue its ruling later this year.
Moon is expecting to build a closer relationship with Japan under PM Suga for several reasons, but Japan’s support for Yoo’s quest to secure the WTO director general seat must be one of them.
“I told President Moon that the current bilateral relations, which are very severe at this moment, due to issues such as wartime labor, should not be left hung out to dry. I’d continue to press South Korea strongly to take appropriate action based on our coherent position on various issues, like I did in today’s meeting,” Suga told journalists.
Korean media had widely reported Tokyo’s refusal to support the 53-year-old trade minister’s WTO bid. Korea had attempted to take the chief post at the 166-member WTO twice through Kim Chul-su in 1994 and Bark Tae-ho in 2012 but to no avail.
Indonesia also tried its luck in 2012 by nominating then tourism and creative economy minister Mari Pangestu. Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo eventually won the coveted post and was reelected for a second four-year term in 2017. He resigned at the end of August.
In response to Japan’s reluctance, Yoo said: "When they actually look at the candidates, to Japan, what's of utmost important is the person's, the candidate's, competency and capability to save and enhance the WTO, and also to take up WTO reform. So in that regard, I will reach out to Japanese colleagues and will present my vision for the WTO.”
Tokyo, however, has never openly revealed its official stance. Japan may worry about the WTO’s deciding in favor of Korea in its trade dispute with Japan if Yoo was at helm. But as in the case of senior Korean diplomat Ban Ki-moon’s two terms as the UN secretary-general, there should be no reason for such fear of a conflict of interest.
Yoo, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mandouh and Britain’s Liam Fox are the five remaining candidates going into the second round of election. The Nigerian candidate is tipped as the favorite contender as she is a former number two at the World Bank.
Indonesia needs to learn from South Korea’s massive and well-orchestrated campaign to win an international position or the right to host Summer and Winter Olympics and the World Cup.
In 1987, we were very confident the internationally recognized intellectual Sudjatmoko would win the UNESCO director general’s post, but it ended in failure. He was later elected the rector of the Tokyo-based UN University. In 2010, Indonesian nominee for FAO chief post, Indroyono Soesilo, fell at the first hurdle and two years later our campaign for Mari did not work out.
Which WTO chief candidate will Indonesia support? From the trade and economic points of view, President Joko “Jokowi” will prefer a candidate from Asia, Yoo. Besides, South Korea is one of Indonesia’s major trading partners and sources of investment.
But in the greater interest of developing nations, Indonesia could support Nigeria and Kenya. Nigeria is the more favorable choice because Indonesia is one of the largest trading partners of Africa’s largest economy.
“We are still finalizing our position on the WTO election,” a senior government official said over the weekend. In fact, Indonesia has built good bilateral ties with all the countries the five candidates come from.
Notwithstanding the race for the top seat at the WTO, Tokyo and Seoul’s rapprochement is crucial not only for their future relationship, but also for the good of Asia and the 10-member ASEAN.
And South Korea’s all-out effort to get Madame Yoo into the prestigious office in Geneva, Switzerland, whether it succeeds or not, is a valuable lesson about a nation’s determination to achieve its ambitions.
Senior editor at The Jakarta Post