Ban of S. Korea to head U.N.

Career diplomat expected to be confirmed this week as secretary-general of world body

October 10, 2006|By Maggie Farley and Bruce Wallace | Maggie Farley and Bruce Wallace,Los Angeles Times

UNITED NATIONS -- When Ban Ki Moon was in high school in South Korea in 1962, he won a speech contest and was invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy. When a journalist there asked him what he wanted to do, he said, "I want to become a diplomat."

It is a story tailor-made for the man who won the U.N. Security Council's backing yesterday to fill the world's top diplomatic post. Yet Ban, South Korea's foreign minister, did not tell the tale during his eight-month campaign to become the next U.N. secretary-general until last week, when it was clear he had clinched the spot.

His reticence may come in part from a cultural reluctance to draw attention to himself, as well as a strategy not to appear too close to the United States. But it also provides an insight into the character of the quietly ambitious official who has emerged as the likely U.N. chief after years of connection-building and months of campaigning.

The 62-year-old is a self-described "harmonizer" and consensus-builder, even if that means being deliberately bland and decidedly cautious.

"He's not a guy who gets drunk at parties, I haven't seen him shoot a hole-in-one at the golf course, I haven't heard him sing karaoke. He doesn't have a lot of charisma. He compensates for that with competence," said Donald Gregg, president of the Korea Society and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

Still, diplomats at the United Nations are wondering: Is Ban a leader? And will he - can he - change the U.N.?

Ban is expected to win final approval later this week from the General Assembly, which usually follows the Security Council's recommendation on filling the secretary-general's post.

When he moves into his new wood-paneled office on the U.N.'s 38th floor on Jan. 1, he will inherit a sprawling bureaucracy of 9,000 workers, a $5 billion budget, with aid agencies and 18 peacekeeping operations spanning the globe. Although the world body plays a central role in quelling conflicts, preventing disease and aiding development, it is also beset by poor management, damage from scandals, and divisions that makes progress on some issues difficult.

"It may be an impossible and thankless job, but someone has got to do it," he said.

Many are surprised it is Ban, indisputably statesmanlike but one of the least colorful candidates. The selection process demands that the candidate has international stature, yet will not offend or challenge any of the Security Council powers. And Ban so far, has displeased no one.

His foreign ministry colleagues nicknamed him "The Bureaucrat." The press corps there calls him "the slippery eel" for his ability to wriggle out of answering almost every question.

Soon, everyone will call him "Mr. Secretary-General," and his priority as the head of the world body, he said, is to reform it.

"The U.N. suffers from a chronic weakness: its inability to set priorities and make choices," he said. "The U.N. needs to promise less and deliver more."

He would not say what kind of cuts he had in mind, or how he might deal with nations that are blocking reforms outlined by current Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"I think the secretary-general should really be a harmonizer, to try to demonstrate leadership by example," Ban said. "I think I can coordinate and reconcile all the divisive opinions among the member states. But at the same time, the member states should also be prepared to demonstrate maximum flexibility."

The Bush administration made clear early in the selection process that it desired a secretary-general who would act like the chief administrative officer that the U.N. charter called for, not a diplomatic "rock star," as Annan was dubbed. In that sense, Ban fits the bill.

But a charismatic leader humanizes the institution, said John Ruggie, a former assistant secretary-general to Annan, now at Harvard's Kennedy School for Public Policy.

"When Kofi was in his `rock star' phase, he did a lot to attract interest in the U.N., and part of the campaign against him was in fact driven by his popularity and his ability to reach out to the public," he said. "I don't think Ban Ki-moon will have that problem. But that may work to his advantage."

Maggie Farley and Bruce Wallace write for the Los Angeles Times.

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