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

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, one of the two women fighting to be the next head of the World Trade Organization, is known at home as a glass ceiling breaker in a still male-dominated society.
A graduate of English literature from elite Seoul University, she gave up her dreams of a literary career to become a civil servant at the Department of Commerce in 1995.
"At that time there were no seasoned trade experts in South Korea and I decided to pursue my career in trade because I thought the country would need one," she told the Seoul Economic Daily in 2018.
Initially she worked in the WTO department of the ministry. She took the time to do a PhD from Vanderbilt University in the United States and has conducted a number of free trade negotiations.
These include both the 2014 free trade agreement with China in South Korea and the revision of the agreement with the USA in 2018, which was called for by President Donald Trump.
She has built a reputation for being a tough negotiator and, during talks with Singapore in 2004, staged a strike that she later described as "carefully calculated".
"The next day we had the deal we wanted."
She is described by the South Korean government as an "innovator, negotiator, strategist and pioneer" and she was appointed Minister of Commerce by center-left President Moon Jae-in last year.
Her husband Choung Tae-ok was a member of the main conservative opposition until the general election in April.
Their relationship made headlines when she attended a parliamentary hearing and he was among the MPs in attendance, despite their not staying down to earth.
The couple have two children, and Yoo told Seoul Economic Daily, "I recently saw 'Game of Thrones,' which my daughter liked, and read a book with her about Elon Musk.
"A child is like an organic body that feeds on the love and time of its parents. I try to be with them whenever possible."
If elected, Yoo, 53, will become the oldest South Korean on the global diplomatic scene since Ban Ki-moon, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations between 2007 and 2016.
"Her life in Korea has been shaped by Korea's increasing prosperity and growth in the multilateral trading world," her ministry said of her.
However, her candidacy takes place 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 owe "gratitude" to the WTO for its "remarkable growth, from a relatively impoverished country recovering from the ruins of war to one of the largest trading nations".
In view of the threat of protectionism and trade tensions, however, the WTO is confronted with a "confidence deficit" in which many "question" the relevance of the trading system it represents.
kjk / slb / qan / hg

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