Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean candidate to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), has dropped out of the race, effectively opening the door for Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become its first African leader. In a statement, Yoo, the South Korean Trade Minister, said that she had been “in consultation with major countries such as the United States” over the consensus vote to become the next director general of the WTO. Nigerian candidate Okonjo-Iweala had been recommended by top WTO officials to lead the Geneva body in October, after being judged to have had majority support among members, but the appointment was blocked by the United States under the Trump administration. Former US trade representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer said that her opponent, Yoo, “is a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policymaker”. US vetoes appointment of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, China’s choice to lead the global trade body Okonjo-Iweala had the key backing of China, the European Union and Japan. Yoo’s decision may signal a softening in the US stance towards the WTO. At the end of January, after Biden’s inauguration, the US supported a statement calling for “the swift appointment of a new WTO director general, as well as the confirmation of the date and venue of the 12th Ministerial Conference”. Yoo’s statement said that Seoul will “continue to contribute in various ways to strengthen the restoration of the multilateral trading system as a responsible trading powerhouse”. A Geneva trade source said that the WTO had yet to be officially informed about Yoo’s decision to exit the race. The expectation is that there will be no movement on the appointment of a director general until the next US trade chief is installed, which could be in the coming weeks. The next meeting of the WTO’s general council is on March 1 and 2. Despite Yoo’s decision to drop out of the race, Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership will not be confirmed until all 164 members give it their formal blessing. But with no alternative candidate, her appointment now appears to be a formality, ending a long battle against a strong field of candidates, at a time when the global trading system has been fraught with geopolitical tensions. Records obtained by the South China Morning Post showed that the Nigerian candidate also fought tooth and nail to win over the Trump administration, but to no avail. Long dialogue with Trump administration officials turned out to be fruitless, as Lighthizer came out strongly in favour of her South Korean opponent. Before her candidacy was announced, self-described “trusted adviser to heads of state” Richard Attias approached Donald Trump’s son-in-law and then White House aide Jared Kushner to champion Okonjo-Iweala as the future leader of the WTO, emails obtained by the Post show. WTO director general: will it be Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee? “As you know Dr Ngozi is not an official candidate for the WTO. She is a great lady. [Binational] (USA/Nigerian). She called me yesterday to support her and to help her. I don’t want to move ahead unless I know what the US will do or support. I think she could very loyal to [the] US administration,” Attias wrote in an email to Kushner in June, which the aide then forwarded to USTR Lighthizer, records show. Attias was referring to the fact that Okonjo-Iweala is a dual-citizen of the US and Nigeria, a fact that emerged during the campaign. Also in June, days after she confirmed her candidacy, a lobbyist for the public affairs firm Mercury LLC noted in communications with former USTR chief of staff Kevin Garvey that “Dr Ngozi recently texted with Mrs Trump about her interest in the open position and looks forward to speaking with others in the Trump administration”. The Biden administration is likely to prove more cooperative in restoring the WTO, even if it is likely to continue to push for reform. In a recent op-ed for the Hinrich Foundation, former Trump trade official Clete Willems wrote that the new US government “is likely to lift the hold on the naming of a new WTO director general, to more actively work with allies through the system to hold China accountable for its unfair trade practices, and to engage in fewer overtly provocative unilateral trade actions”. Biden’s pick to replace Lighthizer as USTR, Katherine Tai, has yet to be confirmed, but is also thought to strongly favour engaging with the Geneva institution. China, meanwhile, has moved to shake up its WTO presence in anticipation of a changing approach from Washington. On Thursday, Beijing named Li Chenggang as new its new WTO ambassador. The former director of the Ministry of Commerce’s Department of Treaty and Law replaces Zhang Xiangchen, who left the role in late 2020, after representing China at the WTO for over three years. Zhang is now a vice-minister at the Ministry of Commerce. The next director general will replace the Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down at the end of August, a year before the end of his second term. He was first appointed in September 2013 before being re-elected for a second four-year term in February 2017. After Azevedo announced his decision to step down in May, eight candidates were put forward by their respective governments replace him before July’s deadline for nominations. In mid-September, Mexico’s Jesus Seade, Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh and Moldova’s Tudor Ulianovschi failed to receive enough support to move into the second stage. Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo eventually advanced to the final stage, the WTO announced in early October after Britain’s Liam Fox, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri and Kenya’s Amina Mohamed also failed receive enough support.