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The New Kofi: “Offend No One”

5 minute read
Bryan Walsh

When Ban Ki Moon received word last week that North Korea might be planning to test a nuclear device, he had reason to be anxious. As South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Ban is a key player in the six-party talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. A test would scuttle those talks and likely lead to a renewed U.S. push for sanctions against North Korea. And so in the middle of Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, Ban, 62, was on the phone to his counterparts in Moscow, Beijing, Washington and Tokyo, building a response to the North Korean announcement. Speaking to TIME between calls, Ban said he was “much worried and troubled” about the possibility of a nuclear test. That’s in part because of the impact it could have on the job he may be about to land: Secretary-General of the United Nations. “I hope this situation will not cause any problems to my current candidacy,” he says.

With the 192-nation General Assembly likely to vote on the next head of the U.N. this week, Ban has emerged as the clear favorite to replace outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan. If Ban gets the job, he’ll have to get used to managing problems beyond the Korean peninsula. With the world confronting conflicts from Darfur to Afghanistan, many people expect the Secretary-General to be a global avatar of peace, as Annan in his best moments sought to be. Just as daunting is the challenge of cleaning house at the U.N., which has been dogged for years by mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption–crystallized in the oil-for-food scandal that tarnished Annan’s tenure. Add to that the task of refereeing between the U.S. and countries like Russia and China, which are determined to chart their own course, and you get an idea why Annan calls it “the most impossible job in the world.” “It would help if the next Secretary-General was a brilliant, compelling leader,” says a U.N. official. “But to actually be chosen for the job, the candidate must be a person who offends no one.”

Inoffensiveness is Ban’s outstanding quality. He has spent 36 years as a diplomat, almost all of them outside the spotlight. His peers praise his understated “Confucian approach,” as one Chinese expert puts it, but some wonder whether Ban has the steel to play a leading role on the international stage–a question that’s been sharpened by North Korea’s latest provocation. “This will be the first time he’s ever been his own boss,” says Peter Beck, the Seoul-based director of the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia project. “Can he really assert himself and stand up to governments that act contrary to the U.N.?” His allies say that it’s a mistake to assume that Ban is as diffident as he might sometimes appear. “It’s a typical Oriental style,” says Yoon Young Kwan, Ban’s predecessor as South Korean Foreign Minister. “He is soft-spoken, but inside he has a strong view and strong motivation.”

A self-described “country boy,” Ban was born in 1944, when South Korea was under Japanese occupation, and spent his childhood in the shadow of the Korean War. He had diplomatic postings in New Delhi and Washington, at the U.N. and in Vienna before becoming South Korea’s Foreign Minister in 2004. The years abroad gave him global contacts and helped protect his reputation from the taint of South Korea’s toxic political environment. “He doesn’t make enemies,” says Yan Sun Mook, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party’s international-relations committee. “He makes friends.” But Ban can also be tough. In the face of opposition from his own diplomats, Ban reformed Seoul’s foreign ministry, replacing a promotion system based on seniority with a meritocratic one. He’s an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” says an aide.

Pursuing the U.N. job has required Ban to make nice with both the U.S. and China, a challenge even for a diplomat of Ban’s skills. The U.S. preferred either Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga or former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, but both were vetoed by other permanent Security Council members. Washington’s reluctance was due in part to South Korea’s growing coziness with China and by Seoul’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with Pyongyang, which some Administration officials say has hindered efforts to get tough with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The U.S. is skeptical that Ban, long careful to avoid stepping on toes, would really be willing to challenge the entrenched interests inside the U.N. that are opposed to reform.

Ban dismisses the notion that the U.S. and South Korea have drifted apart: “We are going through a very important transformation period, but our relationship is very sound and healthy.” So far, reaction to Pyongyang’s announcement of a planned nuclear test has been unified, with even China, the closest country North Korea has to an ally, warning Pyongyang that a test would bring “serious consequences.” Ban is so intent on resolving the North Korean dispute that he says he might visit Pyongyang himself as Secretary-General–something Annan never did. “I’ve gained a deeper experience and understanding into this complex issue,” he says. “Having known all the history and background and having known people in both the South and the North, I’m convinced I can do much better than any other person.” He may soon get the chance to prove it.

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