Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that Kim Jong Un played to President Donald Trump’s “ego and penchant for pageantry” during their three one-on-one high-profile summits in 2018 and 2019, and that the North Korean leader “seems to have succeeded in acquiring de facto nuclear state status.”
Ban’s comments come amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, as South Korean officials said Tuesday that North Korea had blown up a joint liaison office, located near the border and designed to facilitate better communication between the two countries.
In an interview during Wednesday’s TIME100 Talks, Ban said that he was “very worried” about ongoing missile tests in North Korea, and that the United States has changed its position on North Korea’s acceptable behavior. “President Trump has been saying that it’s okay that [North Korea] are testing some small range missiles, as it cannot reach the American continent. It’s not only the security and safety of the American continent. It’s the safety, security and threat to the whole of humanity,” Ban said.
Trump and Kim Jong Un have met three times, once in Singapore in June 2018, in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019, and at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in June 2019. Trump’s steps onto North Korean territory mark a first for a sitting U.S. president, although commentators have noted that there’s been little progress on North Korea’s denuclearization since. “President Trump has been able to make a good contribution, but at this time, unfortunately, by just granting a one-on-one summit three times, [it] perhaps played to Trump’s ego and penchant for pageantry, and Kim Jong Un seems to have succeeded in acquiring de facto nuclear state status,” said Ban.
Ban spoke to TIME East Asia Correspondent Charlie Campbell in a wide-ranging conversation, covering topics from South Korea’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to the rise of populism and nationalism. The event also featured AI pioneer Kai-Fu Lee, Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana, tennis star Naomi Osaka and a performance by K-pop group Monsta X.
“Now, embarrassingly, we are seeing some absence of American leadership since the Administration of Donald Trump began,” Ban said, adding that the U.S. was backtracking from world helping to address global problems “at a time when American leadership is most needed.”
Referring to “opportunistic leaders” in the U.S., Brazil and Southeast Asia in particular, Ban condemned populism, saying that certain figures were exploiting anger at societal inequalities to frame globalism (and the U.N.) as the enemy of national values. “Attacks on the U.N. are nothing new. [These leaders] are using the anger of the people on the ground,” Ban said, adding that levels of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and sexism have dangerously increased globally in tandem with the rise in populism.
Ban urged powerful nations to work together to overcome global challenges, noting the U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018, UNESCO in 2019, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, which Ban led efforts on during his tenure at the United Nations from 2007 to 2016. “Since the election of President Trump in 2016, I’m afraid this ‘America First‘ policy has in fact isolated the United States on the global stage,” Ban said. “International cooperation is the glue that binds everybody together. Nationalism and protectionism are simply not viable alternatives to co-operation and partnership.”
Ban, who also served as South Korea’s Foreign Minister earlier in his career, spoke of how his country’s experiences of the SARS and MERS epidemics helped it prepare for the current coronavirus pandemic. “Mask wearing has been ingrained in the lives of Korean people, and the government’s very aggressive response related to the three ‘T’s — ‘testing, tracing and treatment’ — has been particularly effective in keeping cases, hospitalizations and deaths relatively low,” Ban said.
The first confirmed coronavirus case in South Korea was announced on Jan. 20; to date, the country has had 11,902 confirmed cases and just 276 deaths. A day later on Jan. 21, the first case was confirmed in the U.S.; to date, the country has had more than 1.9 million confirmed cases and more than 112,000 deaths.
Echoing his broader emphasis on international cooperation, Ban acknowledged that while “no one size fits all” when it came to individual country responses to the crisis, South Korea was willing to share its experiences. “Korea ready to work with the U.N., the World Health Organization, and I believe that there are many lessons to be learnt that could be replicated from the lessons of the Korean people.”
This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.