Ban Ki-moon (born 1944) was sworn in late in 2006 as secretary-general of the United Nations (U.N.). The former South Korean foreign minister took office on January 1, 2007, after predecessor Kofi Annan completed two five-year terms.
Ban, whom the United States backed for the new position, became the first Asian to run the international organization since 1971. His supporters cite his administrative and mediation abilities, while critics call him too bland at a time of geopolitical volatility. Ban's longtime involvement with the U.N. has its roots in the agency's postwar rebuilding of Korea in the early 1950s. "Courtly and deliberate, with an easy smile, Ban, 62, is an unknown at the United Nations, particularly compared with the high-profile globe-trotting diplomat he is succeeding," Warren Hoge wrote in the International Herald Tribune .
Ban was born in the farming village of Eumseong, when the Japanese occupied Korea before the end of World War II. He grew up the oldest of six children in nearby Cheongu. His father's warehouse business went bankrupt and the family, when Ban was six years old, fled to the mountains during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 through 1953. "We were safe and in a place where neither the South Korean nor North Korean armies would come, but we were poor and hungry," Ban said in the International Herald Tribune . "I could see the fighter jets bombing the towns and cities nearby." Ban said South Koreans view the U.N., which originated in 1948, favorably for its role in freeing South Korea from the communist North. "We Koreans have quite literally risen from the ashes of war," he said on the British Broadcasting Corporation's website, BBC News.
He studied English fervently amid strict educational standards that included writing English sentences ten times each, to reinforce memory. In 1956 his schoolmates selected Ban to write an appeal to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold concerning Hungary's uprising against what was then the Soviet Union. "I never found out if they ever sent it," he told Hoge. His diplomatic ambitions intensified when he met U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962, when he visited the United States as part of an American Red Cross program. An all-girls school in his Cheongu hometown sent him off with bamboo strainers, traditional symbols of luck. He would later marry one of the girls, student council president Yoo Soon-taek, in 1971, one year after he passed his diplomat's examination. Ban earned his bachelor of arts degree in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970; he obtained his master's degree in public administration in 1985 from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Ban served his country's foreign ministry for about three decades; his postings included India, the United States, and Austria. He began his career with the U.N. in 1975, as a member of its South Korean home office. Ban, while South Korea's ambassador to Austria, was chairman of the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization in 1999. According to BBC News, Ban has drawn praise as "a consummate mediator and a world-class administrator." The Reuters news agency added: "Quiet and unassuming, Ban has made few missteps during his long career as a Korean diplomat."
One misstep that cost Ban a high-level job in 2001 triggered the events that ultimately led to his top position at the U.N. His aides had accidentally failed to delete praise of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty from a memo, at the same time that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had decided to scuttle it. Kim Dae Jung, then the president of South Korea, had to apologize publicly. "I was totally out of work for the first time in my life," he said, according to Hoge.
While awaiting career exile—ambassadorship to some remote country—Ban got an offer from Han Seung Soo, a fellow South Korean and the U.N. General Assembly president that year, to serve as Han's chief of staff. "I had what we call a 'jeon-hwa-we-bok' experience," he told Hoge. "Had I been appointed to an ambassadorship somewhere, I simply wouldn't have had this opportunity to be selected secretary general." Hoge added: "The maxim, well known to Koreans, means that a misfortune has turned into a blessing."
Ban, as South Korea's foreign minister, has been among the leaders in talks among six nations—China, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the two Koreas—that look to curb North Korea's nuclear proliferation. He spent one Chuseok holiday—the Korean Thanksgiving—talking to high-level officials in Washington, Tokyo, Moscow, and Beijing to craft a response to North Korea's intentions to test nuclear weapons. But under his watch, South Korea has also been seen as not forceful enough with its northern neighbor about human rights; Ban, too, has drawn criticism as overly waffling. He said at one press conference that South Korea's media called him "the slippery eel because I was too charming for them to be able to catch me," according to Elizabeth M. Lederer of the Associated Press. He added that he earned the nickname "because I was very friendly with the media … but I promise today that I can be a pretty straight shooter when I need to."
On October 13, 2006, the U.N.'s 192-member General Assembly in New York appointed Ban its eighth secretary general. He became the first Asian in such a position since U Thant of Burma (now Myanmar). The outgoing Annan praised Ban as "a man with a truly global mind at the helm of the world's only universal organization," the New York Times wrote. Annan, the newspaper said, reminded Ban of the advice then-first secretary general, Trygve Lie, told successor Dag Hammarskjold: "You are about to take over the most impossible job on earth."
Speaking to the General Assembly the previous month, Ban, according to the text of his statement printed on South Korea's foreign ministry website, noted the U.N.'s accomplishments over 50 years. He added, "We cannot be sanguine about future trends. If the U.N.'s primary task in the 20th century was to curb inter-state conflict, its core mandate in the new century must be to strengthen states and to preserve the inter-state system in the face of new challenges."
He also declared, "Some assert that the U.N. is poorly equipped to deal with new threats, such as those posed by non-state actors seeking to undermine the international order…. Our tools need sharpening…. The United Nations remains no more, and no less, than what we make of it."
When Annan assumed office, he had to "get used to managing problems beyond the Korean peninsula," Bryan Walsh of Time magazine wrote. Recent world conflicts have included the Iraqi war, nuclear buildup in Iran, continuing fighting in Afghanistan, and three years of fighting in the Darfur region of Sudan. In addition, Ban heads an organization that Walsh said "has been dogged for years by mismanagement, inefficiency, and corruption," and by bureaucratic stagnation. Scandal surrounding the $64 million oil-for-food program stained Annan's tenure. The program allowed Iraq, which had been under U.N. sanctions after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to sell oil, provided most of the money went toward food, medicine, and other humanitarian causes. But reports largely blamed the U.N. for shoddy oversight.
On December 23, 2006, the 15-member United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions against Iran in a unanimous vote. The resolution ordered all countries to ban the sale of any technology and materials that Iran could use for its nuclear programs. The council warned Iran it would pass further non-military sanctions if the country does not comply. Ban, in a televised interview with ABC News that he taped just before the Security Council vote, urged the Teheran government to revive talks with European nations Great Britain, France, and Germany. Iran, meanwhile, said it would ignore the order and commence work immediately on upgrading its uranium-enrichment capabilities.
Also in late 2006, Ban insisted again that patience was necessary in discussions with North Korea about that country's own nuclear ambitions. But the United States, while supportive of Ban, worries that South Korea's warming relations with communist China and Seoul's policy of engagement with its northern neighbor have hindered the ability of Ban to play hardball with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong II. "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," Walsh wrote.
Ban, according to Walsh, is so determined to resolve the dispute with North Korea that he might visit the Pyongyang capital city himself as secretary general, which his predecessor did not. "I've gained a deeper experience and understanding into this complex issue," he said, as quoted in Time . "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." Ban told Lally Weymouth of Newsweek , "North Korea has declared very defiantly that if the Security Council adopts any sanctions, it will regard this as a declaration of war. This is very worrisome and shows total disrespect of the United Nations."
By any measure, Ban stepped into a job often considered thankless. "The job is grueling, requiring an extraordinary combination of public advocacy, tough management, and tireless crisis diplomacy," the New York Times editorialized. "Mr. Ban got a quick taste of his life to come when the news of his selection was upstaged by North Korea's announcement that it had tested a nuclear weapon."
In his interview with Newsweek , Ban said North Korea "should be more realistic." He added: "Considering the economic and political difficulty [North Korea is] facing, they should have taken a wiser path. Why should they take this dangerous and negative action?… We need a two-pronged approach. While we take a very strong and stern message and deliver it to North Korea, at the same time we need to leave some room for negotiations so as not to escalate the situation."
China, Japan, and Russia, meanwhile, have urged Ban to limit his role in North Korean talks, according to Bill Varner of the Bloomberg news service. Varner quoted Chinese U.N. ambassador Wang Guangya as saying any involvement "has to be informal, low-key, silent." Ashton Carter, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense who has worked with Ban, said some nations in the six-party talks may resent Ban's intrusion, but according to Varner he added: "Involvement by Ban would be constructive because the six-party talks have been a failure."
Ban, who has one son and two daughters, also hopes to tackle such issues as HIV/AIDS and other health epidemics, and the abject poverty that prevails in some parts of the world. "Without the eradication of poverty, you will always see conflicts," he told Weymouth. Reform within the U.N., he added, will help answer critics that say the organization is irrelevant. He called himself a "harmonizer and a bridgebuilder," according to the AP's Lederer, and wants to heal the rift between rich and poor nations. "You could say that I'm a man on a mission, and my mission could be dubbed Operation Restore Trust … trust in the organization and trust between member states and the secretariat."
New York Times , October 11, 2006; October 14, 2006.
Newsweek , October 23, 2006.
Time , October 16, 2006.
"Ban Ki-Moon Lays Out U.N. Agenda," Associated Press, December 15, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/15/AR2006121500309.html (December 15, 2006).
"Ban Ki-Moon Sworn in as 8th U.N. Secretary-General," Reuters, December 14, 2006, http://www.en.epochtimes.com/news/6-12-14/49341.html (December 15, 2006).
"Ban Must Limit North Korea Role, Say China, Russia," Bloomberg, December 14, 2006, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601080&sid=aqhUjYOsnL.E&refer=asia (December 15, 2006).
"Profile: Ban Ki-moon," BBC News, October 13, 2006, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/5401856.stm (December 15, 2006).
"Statement by H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon," Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea, September 21, 2006, http://www.mofat.go.kr/me/me_a002/me_b006/1211055_980.html (December 15, 2006).
"Twist of Fate Led to Top Post at U.N.," International Herald Tribune , December 8, 2006, http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/12/08/news/profile.php (December 24, 2006).