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UN: Career Diplomat Set To Be Next Secretary-General

By Nikola Krastev

UNITED NATIONS, October 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Barring unforeseen circumstances, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon will succeed Kofi Annan as UN Secretary-General when Annan steps down at the end of December.

Ban received 14 of the 15 votes in the UN Security Council's October 2 informal ballot, including the votes of all five permanent veto-yielding members. The council still must hold a formal vote on October 9 and then recommend the candidate to the UN General Assembly for final approval, but with such strong support Ban is virtually assured to get the job.

As an 18-year-old, Ban Ki-moon won first prize in an English-language competition. The reward was a trip to the United States, where he met then U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It was a decisive moment that Ban says convinced him to become a diplomat.

His diplomatic career now covers 36 years, including an ambassadorship in Austria. Ban is no novice to the UN, having worked for the organization for over 10 years.

Seen As Strong Mediator

JaHyun Kim Haboush, the director of the Center For Korean Research at Columbia University, told RFE/RL that Ban's manner of doing things is subdued, but when needed, he can be assertive. 

"The general idea of him is that he is a very competent administrator and he is sort of a conciliator," she says. "He is someone who really can mediate between people with very different opinions."

Kofi Annan is perceived by many as a confident secretary-general, a man with a strong sense of mission. Ban, on the other hand, is often described as unassuming politician who can get along with everybody.

Ian Williams, UN correspondent for "The Nation" magazine and editor of "The Congressional Quarterly Guide to the UN," says that it is exactly Ban's skill at finding compromises in tough cases that may win him support from the big players.

"You find that the great powers on the Security Council often pick people because they think they're low-key and will do what they are told," Williams says. "But, of course, actual possession of the office changes people's mind and they feel that they have strong stands to take. Ban Ki-moon has expressed strong support for things like the responsibility to protect the International Criminal Court, which is not exactly music to the ears of either China, or the U.S., or [U.S. Ambassador to the UN] John Bolton."

Striking A Balance

Williams says that Ban's experience as a foreign minister prepared him well for the UN's top job. "It's quite clear that he is a person of integrity. He himself, when I asked him last week over the issue of negotiating with the United States, has pointed out that as the foreign minister of South Korea, he's had to sort of balance between the Russians, and the Chinese, and the North Koreans, and the Japanese, and the United States," he says.

"And I think if you look at the South Korean foreign policy in the last few years under this government -- they have in effect been more independent [of Washington] than [has British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, and Tony Blair hasn't had the excuse of the sort of 'Scotland has gone communist with nuclear weapons' threat," Williams adds. "So he [Ban] has shown a remarkable independence under the circumstances."

Among the tests awaiting any new secretary-general will be to continue the reform process in the organization initiated by Annan last year. The new leader will face the resistance of a powerful bureaucracy and will have to deal with issues of inefficiency, mismanagement, and alleged corruption within the UN.

Charles Armstrong, who is an expert on modern Korean history at Columbia University, says that Ban is keenly interested in continuing the reform process and, so far seems to have a good grasp on it.

"He has been very clear that he is very much going to be pro-active in the UN reform process, that he's going to continue it deep, and it would seem that he's going to be very interested in continuing the reform and putting it into practice, many of the goals that UN has laid out over the last year," Armstrong says. "And precisely because he has been effective at maneuvering among these competing interests, he may be in fact a good person to do that."

Korean Advantage?

Armstrong says that being a Korean may put Ban in a sensitive position when dealing with UN matters related to North Korea. The announcement on October 3 by the North Korean government that it plans to conduct a nuclear-weapons test brings the issue to the forefront at the UN and were Ban elected as the new secretary-general, he would have to exercise caution so as not to appear to be acting as South Korea's foreign minister.

On the other hand, Armstrong, says, being Korean may give Ban an advantage no previous secretary-general has had "because indeed he would not have a language problem with the North Koreans and he would understand their cultural perspective. So if he gains the trust of the North Koreans, then he might be able to get the kind of a breakthrough in the North Korean crisis that no previous secretary-general has been able to do so far," Armstrong says.

Ban married his high-school sweetheart and they have three children. One of Ban's daughters now works for UNICEF in Africa.

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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