Ban Ki-Moon: From the United Nations to North Korea

Ban Ki-Moon: From the United Nations to North Korea

Luck lies at the end of preparation and opportunity for the new UN Secretary General

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Los Angeles --- It's amazing how just a little bit of time (and more than a little competence) can alter the odds. If anyone had told you a year ago that the next United Nations Secretary General was going to be a Korean, you'd have quickly wagered against.

Korea, after all, remains brutally divided, and peninsular tensions are today running high, so proposing a Korean national to replace the exiting Kofi Annan would have seemed a fool's gamble.

"A Korean is not going to be the head of the UN," a widely respected Japanese diplomat flatly predicted just six month ago. In fact, no one, Japanese or otherwise, would have bet much on that prospect either.

No one, that is, except career diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the South Korean "State Department" in Seoul. More than a year ago they quietly began putting into place an elaborate campaign to launch the candidacy of their Foreign Minister for the top UN job. Quietly, though, is really not the word: They wanted everyone in the world to know that their man -- Ban Ki-moon, a veteran South Korean diplomat -- wanted the appointment, was overtly campaigning for the job, and believed he might just be the right man for it.

To stereotype a bit, the Koreans that I have met over the years tend not to be coy. You know exactly where they stand, exactly what they want and how deeply they want it. And so when the foreign-ministry decided to hunt down the UN prize for Ban, they went all out. Every national representative on the UN Security Council was contacted and wooed. Some African nations (whose UN General Assembly approbation would be needed to finalize the succession process) who had never ever greeted a top South Korean official on their soil suddenly found themselves receiving Foreign Minister Ban on official visits.  As one laughing South Korean official told me, "Ban was the first foreign minister who ever needed an over-night bag when he traveled. Usually the FM goes to China, Japan and Russia -- and that's about it."

As hoped, frequent-flier Ban's prodigious diplomatic mileage began to pay dividends.  Before long, his long-shot candidacy suddenly seemed more than plausible. Then, after the first informal Security Council straw-poll vote this summer, it was clear he was the actual front-runner. After the next two votes, he was, amazingly, in the lead by a mile.  All of a sudden the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' game plan became obvious: to get so far into the lead that the race would be all but over before anyone realized it.

Sure, it helps not only to be good but lucky, too. The candidacy of Ban's chief rival for the job, who was from Bangkok, became unplugged when a kind of soft military coup pushed the incumbent prime minister out of office. Then North Korea announced its decision to run an underground nuclear-bomb test. Instead of undermining Ban's candidacy, this dramatic development added to the gravity of almost everything Korean and it was quickly conjectured that perhaps Ban, as the new UN Secretary-General, could appeal to the pride of his fellow Koreans in the North and bring some special energy and international luster to easing the nuclear crisis.

In the end, all the breaks fell toward South Korea, and if luck actually lies at the intersection of preparation and opportunity, the Ban-wagon was well prepared to exploit their big chance. And so last week, the 192 members of the United Nations General Assembly, by unanimous and enthusiastic acclamation, certified Ban as the organization's eighth Secretary General. The South Korean foreign office's well-planned and well-executed year-long campaign had paid off.

Last week, a couple of South Korean career diplomats got together over lunch at a private club in Los Angeles. They talked about how luck had smiled on them, how many other qualified diplomats from other countries, such as Singapore's Chan Heng Chee, who had been formally approached by a UN Security Council member for the job, might instead have been the choice. They reflected on how hard Ban had worked to get backing and what kind of extraordinary air mileages he must be racking up.

Then one of the diplomats said: "Now, we must work hard to see that his secretary generalship is a very solid success." The diplomat was then asked about whether Ban can bring any magic to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The answer was that magic is an illusion but hard work is not. "No one works harder than Ki-moon," said the diplomat.

The diplomats offer the view that sanctions won't change this odious regime, they'll just further harden the anthracite hearts of the craven rulers and hurt the average, already-suffering North Koreans even more. They argued softly but firmly for further engagement, negotiation and patience. I asked them whether Ki-moon should go to North Korea. Their answer was yes, but after Jan. 1, when Ban moves into the United Nations.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.