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South Korea hires PR firm to help its candidate for WTO chief

South Korea has hired a US public relations shop to help boost its bid for the top spot at the World Trade Organization.

St. Louis-based Fleishman-Hillard has registered as a foreign agent for the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy after its South Korean affiliate Fleishman-Hillard Korea (FH Korea) asked for assistance with its campaign on behalf of Minister for Trade Yoo Myung-hee. Fleishman-Hillard’s contract with FH Korea runs from Aug. 10 to Sept. 30 and is worth $9,500.

Fleishman-Hillard said FH Korea has asked it to “review media coverage” and “provide advice regarding opportunities in US media outlets” for Yoo’s bid for director-general, the firm said in a lobbying filing with the Department of Justice. “This may include developing a target media list, suggesting topics, drafting or editing content, and communicating with media.”

Senior vice president and partner Michael Schmidt and account supervisor Joseph Netto are registered on the account. The firm said it would not be lobbying the US government.

“The activities are for awareness building” related to Yoo’s bid, the firm wrote, and are “not intended to influence US law or regulation.” However, Yoo “may or may not use” the firm’s advice “for political activity purposes.”

The contract marks the second time a US firm has registered to help one of the WTO candidates.

Mercury Public Affairs registered to assist former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala shortly before her bid was made public in early June, as Foreign Lobby Report first reported on June 18. The firm has since terminated its registration under the Lobbying Disclosure Act — but only after concluding that it did not need to register in the first place.

Eight candidates are now running to lead the global trade watchdog after WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo of Brazil resigned in May effective Aug. 31. His term had been scheduled to end in September 2021. Candidates have until Sept. 7 to throw their hat in the ring. A final decision is expected Nov. 7.

Yoo has been minister for trade since March 2019 and is the first woman to hold the job. In a year when female candidates from outside the G7 are seen as having a particularly strong chance, South Korea is well-positioned after having dropped its “developing nation” status just last year under pressure from the Donald Trump administration.

“My career in trade has convinced me it was the open trading system as represented by the WTO that gave Korea the opportunity to follow this development path.”

South Korean Minister for Trade Yoo Myung-hee

“What [South Korea] may be able to speak to in terms of its candidacy is as an emerging power and a ‘middle power’ that can broker compromises and understand both sides,” said J.P. Singh, a professor of International Commerce and Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Because that’s in a way what the WTO is stuck on, apart from the big elephant in the room, the US-China dispute.”

Here too, South Korea may have a leg up. At a time when US-China trade tensions could hurt the chances of anyone seen as too close to either country, Yoo can point to her past work on free trade negotiations with both countries.

“Whoever gets chosen will need to carry both of these two great powers along. Having struck agreements with both would matter,” Singh said. “I think the main opposition to her right now seems to be from Japan, because there’s a huge trade spat between South Korea and Japan and the Japanese have indicated that they’ll block her nomination. One way to get the Japanese to move would be to lobby the US.”

Interestingly, Fleishman-Hillard has also been handling public relations for the Office of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The firm disclosed $92,000 in payments from Abe’s office in the six months through April.

In her candidacy statement to the WTO, Yoo acknowledged growing trade tensions and protectionism around the world that threaten a world trade system that has allowed South Korea to become the world’s seventh-largest exporter. The WTO received her candidacy on June 24.

“Over my lifetime, I personally witnessed Korea achieve remarkable growth, from a relatively impoverished country recovering from the ruins of war to one of the largest trading nations,” she wrote. “My career in trade has convinced me it was the open trading system as represented by the WTO that gave Korea the opportunity to follow this development path.”

Yoo’s bid is Seoul’s third attempt to lead the WTO following unsuccessful bids by former trade ministers Kim Chul-su and Bark Tae-ho in 1994 and 2012.

Here are the other candidates:

Name: Jesus Seade Kuri

Country: Mexico

Bio: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Under Secretary for North America / chief negotiator for US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement

Nomination date: June 8

Name: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Country: Nigeria

Bio: Former Finance Minister / Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance

Nomination date: June 9

Name: Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh

Country: Egypt

Bio: Former director of the Trade in Services and Investment Division of the WTO / senior counsel at King & Spalding

Nomination date: June 9

Name: Tudor Ulianovschi

Country: Moldova

Bio: Former Minister of Foreign Affairs

Nomination date: June 16

Name: Amina Mohamed

Country: Kenya

Bio: Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Nomination date: July 7

Name: Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri

Country: Saudi Arabia

Bio: Former Minister of Economy and Planning

Nomination date: July 8

Name: Liam Fox

Country: United Kingdom

Bio: Former Secretary of State for International Trade

Nomination date: July 8