Reuters and other news sources are reporting that Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon is set to become the next United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General. Mr. Ban would succeed Kofi Annan of Ghana, who has held the post for 10 years. Mr. Ban won all four straw polls of the 15-member U.N. Security Council. More importantly, he did not receive any vetoes from Security Council members, clearing the way for him to be officially nominated by the Council on October 9. If chosen, he would take over from Mr. Annan on January 1, 2007.
I heard Mr. Ban speak last year when he was keynote speaker at a banquet in Seoul honoring former President George H.W. Bush. He is understated, yet eloquent. My impression of him during his address and from his two-year tenure as head of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) is that Mr. Ban will make a fine Secretary-General. In a country where politics can be brutal and scandalous, Mr. Ban is one of the few statesmen who remain above the political fray, succumbing to neither the pull of the Left nor the Right. Although his political views are not widely known, he exudes the persona of a moderate and a consensus builder. The United Nations has been quite contentious in recent years. Mr. Ban has a big job ahead of him as Secretary-General, but I am sure that he is up to the task. I am happy for Mr. Ban and for the Korean people, who will soon have one of their own in one of the world’s most important diplomatic posts.
I harbor some misgivings about selecting a South Korean to head the United Nations. It isn’t anything personal, because as I mentioned, Mr. Ban will likely make a fine U.N. Secretary-General. My concerns stem from geopolitical realities. Traditionally, the head of the UN does not come from a conflict area where U.N. troops or peace keepers may be needed. Presently, North and South Korea are technically at war, and today’s news that North Korea will conduct its first nuclear test highlights the fact that this peninsula is still very much a hot spot. Mr. Ban will have to separate himself–quickly–from politics on the Korean Peninsula and subserve any nationalist inclination to impartiality. In a recent vote on North Korean human rights, South Korea chose to abstain. The Security Council also voted to sanction North Korea for its missile tests. Mr. Ban must separate himself from the government that now employs him as foreign minister and build a multinational concensus, even when it conflicts with official South Korean policy.
Secondly, Mr. Ban could become a political lightning rod, drawing furor for siding too closely with Japan and/or the United States or by not adequately engaging them. The unique nature of South Korean politics is such that the South Korean people tend to regard Japan, North Korea, and the United States to be the three greatest external threats to their internal stability. Occasionally North Korea and the U.S. change places when geopolitical realities change, such as when North Korea launches test missiles. Japan consistently ranks first in the minds of many Koreans. At the same time, the U.S. and Japan are the top two contributors to the United Nations’ budget, and in recent years, both nations have called for significant United Nations reform. Although Mr. Ban obtained his master’s degree from Harvard and is an astute diplomat, he is still South Korean. He was born during the Japanese occupation and was six years old when the Korean War began. He was nine years old when the 1953 ceasefire went into effect. He grew up in an era when the United States played a significant role in Korea’s development–economically, militarily, and to an extent, politically. The events of the years 1950s-1980s, from the assassination of former President Park Chung-hee to the Kwangju Massacre, are etched into the Korean psyche. These were Mr. Ban’s formative years, when the U.S. loomed large in Korea and relations with Japan played an influential role in Korean affairs. Mr. Ban will need to work closely with both the U.S. and Japan in the multinational context of the United Nations and put aside biases he may have for or against these nations.
Finally, Mr. Ban’s selection as Secretary-General could directly impact U.S.-Korean bilateral relations. If U.S. policy differs significantly from that of the U.N., and by fiat, Mr. Ban, the Koreans will be more likely to support Mr. Ban than the United States. Many Koreans were outraged when Korean Skater Kim Dong-sung was disqualified during 1500 meter speed skating competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics for allegedly blocking American Skater Apollo Ono. They were also outraged during the 2004 Summer Olympics, when American Paul Hamm was awarded a disputed gold medal in the Men’s Gymnastics All-Around. Most Koreans believed Korean Gymnast Yang Tae Young should have won the gold. Although neither incident led to a direct shift in U.S.-Korean relations, both indicate that international disputes can strongly influence Korean public opinion. If relations between Mr. Ban and the United States are less than cordial, the affect could spill over to U.S.-Korean relations. Mr. Ban will be on a much more visible–and contentious–stage than are Olympic athletes. Hence, the risk is greater that the Korean public’s mood could sour vis-a-vis the U.S., if they believe that the U.S. is leaning too heavily on Mr. Ban. This could negatively impact U.S.-Korean bilateral relations.
With these thoughts in mind, I still believe that Mr. Ban will make a good United Nations Secretary-General. His candidacy has prompted the Koreans to further engage the international community and increase their international obligations, such as increasing their financial contributions to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. Mr. Ban is well versed in global development, and he bridges the gap between developed and developing nations. Korea is an optimal model of economic and political development that Mr. Ban can share with the world. I wish Mr. Ban well and godspeed in his new mission.