Kang Kyung-wha – Candidate for ILO Director-General

Kang Kyung-wha from the Republic of Korea was the second candidate to be interviewed. I had not met her before but recognized her immediately as someone whom I had seen over the past twenty years as she moved around the UN system between Geneva and New York. Although it isn’t mentioned in her biography, she was originally active in international women’s circles and even chaired the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in 2004 and 2005 before being appointed by Kofi Annan as Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. She spoke knowledgeably and with confidence about her experiences in the UN system.


This was not a subject on which Ms. Kang could claim any experience. Nonetheless, on this issue, as she did throughout her interview, she showed her familiarity with ILO materials and spoke positively about the work of the ILO – and specifically about Guy Ryder’s leadership. As Mr. Houngbo had also noted, she praised the good work of the ILO data on informality and emphasized how more can be done with digital tools to make the issue more visible. When pressed further on the issue, she acknowledged that “we need to be more robust in reaching out” and that “social dialogue on the ground could be much more inclusive in collaboration with civil society on the ground”. In fact, she observed that labor unions and human rights groups were already collaborating “more closely on behalf of invisible groups”.

Gender Equality

Ms. Kang’s record and commitment to gender equality are solid. Interestingly, this issue was not raised by any of the Governing Body questioners in the public interview. Nor did Ms. Kang choose to bring it up herself, except in the context of a question about her lack of any direct labor experience. In her reply, she argued that she would come to the ILO as an impartial player but with a proven record on her ability to reform, including on gender and diversity more generally.  In her written platform, however, she highlights “life-long experience and involvement” in gender equality and women’s empowerment and rights, both at the UN and in her home country. And she also includes a comprehensive strategy on pandemic recovery to address how the pandemic has been especially devastating on women in the world of work.


In her interview, Ms. Kang was very skillful in describing the ILO role as one that is at the very center of multilateralism. She once again praised the D-G and the ILO for their participation in the SDGs at the UN and building good relations with the international financial institutions. Her suggested next steps would include the ILO leveraging its solid record in social justice, human dignity and vulnerable groups to be more impactful in these areas and “institutionalizing” the well-established relations with the IFIs at a routine working level. In general, the ILO should, she said, seek out partnerships for policy coherence and for more involvement of the ILO’s constituent partners in New York and in the field. She thus reflected a familiarity with these multilateral institutions while complimenting the accomplishments of the current ILO leadership. And this was further reinforced on the issue of climate change, in particular, where she showed an in-depth knowledge of the UNFCCC processes while emphasizing how COP 26 has opened up the opportunity for a new dialogue on climate change that needs the ILO’s involvement “to ensure that the transition is just”.  And through her work as Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, she appreciated the importance of both human rights and workers rights. The issue of multilateralism was clearly her strong point in the interview.

The Normative Future of the ILO

This topic was not Ms. Kang’s strength, unless one accepts her premise that the “great divide”, as she described it, between the Workers and the Employers needs a “fresh leadership”. Confirming her appreciation for the norms and values of the ILO and its tripartism, she explained that she was well placed to bring the skills that she applied in other difficult settings (for example, the tensions between humanitarian and development policies at the UN) for steering the parties to a compromise. “I can be,” she said, “an impartial player in this community”. This certainly is a credible claim on her part, and Ms. Kang showed a sincere interest in knowing more about the normative processes of the ILO, but without showing any familiarity with the specific issues. She had no suggestions of where new standards might be needed – just that she was open to new standards (or something “softer”) for new “challenges” or new “gaps” or new “needs”. She did have some more specific things to say about the ILO’s supervisory machinery – that, for example, there could be more interaction between mechanisms, more than just with the chairs. Interestingly, she drew on her experience as Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to suggest that there could be closer coordination between the monitoring mechanisms of human rights treaties and ILO mechanisms, such as the ILO’s Freedom of Association Committee. And a couple of times she remarked about how amazed she was with the quantity of the ILO’s work in its supervisory mechanisms, with the implication that they are handling far more work than the supervisory mechanisms with which she was familiar in the human rights arena.


Ms. Kang can be an “impartial player” on the ILO’s contentious issues, taking the ILO’s strengths “to new heights”, also described by her as a “Better New Normal”.

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