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Ex-FM Kang competes for top ILO job this week

March 22, 2022 - 15:41 By Ahn Sung-mi
Former Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (Yonhap)

The election for the next director general of the International Labor Organization is scheduled for Friday, with all eyes on whether former Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has a chance at becoming the first woman and first Asian leader in the organization’s 103-year history.

Kang, the country’s first female foreign minister, is competing for the ILO top job along with four other high-profile contenders. They include president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Gilbert Houngbo of Togo, who has served as deputy director general of the ILO in the past, Mthunzi Mdwaba of South Africa, vice president of the International Organization of Employers, Muriel Penicaud of France, former labor minister, and current ILO Deputy Director General Greg Vines of Australia.

The election will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday, during the session of the ILO’s Governing Body. There are a total of 56 votes, split between 28 from the government group, 14 from the workers group and 14 from the employers group.

Whoever wins the majority of the vote will become the next leader starting in October, when current Director General Guy Ryder of the UK leaves office.

It is expected to be a tight race. Houngbo is backed by the world’s largest trade union group, the International Trade Union Confederation, while Mdwaba, as the vice president of IOE has staunch support from members of the ILO’s workers group. 

The result will largely boil down to who can garner more votes from the ILO’s government group, which comprises 10 permanent member states including Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US, as well as 18 other countries that are elected -- of which South Korea is not included.

The South Korean government has been making an all-out effort to back Kang’s candidacy, with President Moon Jae-in and other ranking officials asking for relevant countries’ support for Kang’s bid.

While Kang has an unrivaled career and expertise in international organizations and foreign affairs, her lack of relevant experience in labor issues could hurt her chances, observers say. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the country’s two umbrella labor organizations, refused to support Kang, saying her experiences and stated vision are “quite far” from the job description for the top post.

A veteran of multilateral diplomacy, Kang is widely respected for her leadership as the country’s first female foreign minister from 2017 to 2021, during which she witnessed historic summits with North Korea and other diplomatic accomplishments during a particularly tumultuous period.

Before her stint as minister, Kang enjoyed a long career at the United Nations, serving as a senior policy adviser for both former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

In 2006, she was appointed as deputy high commissioner at the UN Human Rights Office -- equivalent in rank to the UN deputy secretary-general -- making her the first Korean woman to hold such a high-level position in the UN.