UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — When spending and accounting questions arose recently about the United Nations Development Program in North Korea, new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon wasted little time moving into damage-control mode.
After all, he was fully aware of the toll that the Iraq oil-for-food scandal had taken on both the UN and his predecessor, Kofi Annan.
And so Mr. Ban summoned a top UNDP administrator, organized media access to some of the program's senior staff, and issued a statement calling for "an urgent, system-wide and external inquiry" into the financial activities of all UN programs.
That quick action within the first month of his arrival on the job has won Ban some early accolades – including from some quarters among US conservatives that are never prone to kind words about the UN.
"Just by promising an investigation into the UNDP scandal, he sets a different tone, and that is very refreshing after the secrecy that cloaked the institution in the Kofi Annan years," says Nile Gardiner, a UN expert and frequent critic at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Yet even as he wins some initial praise, Ban is also raising some questions with his first appointments, while leading others to wonder if he isn't coming off as too much of a big-powers secretary-general. Ban, they worry, is showing signs of paying deference to a time-honored system that divvies up key posts among the powers that formed the UN system six decades ago – the US, Britain, and France in particular.
"So far, there's been some of the same division of senior posts on the traditional great-power spoils system that we've seen in the past," says Michael Doyle, a former senior UN official now at Columbia University in New York.
As necessary as Ban's quick jump to answer questions about UN operations in North Korea may have been, it also runs some risks, says Mr. Doyle.
"It raises the broader perception that Mr. Ban is dancing to a tune being played in Washington," he says. That is especially true, others say, because Ban issued his audits edict right after The Wall Street Journal editorial page – a prominent critic of Mr. Annan and his handling of the oil-for-food scandal – ran a column questioning UNDP's North Korea operations.
Ban did name a top British diplomat as the UN's humanitarian chief, and speculation is widespread at UN headquarters that Americans and French officials are in line for key diplomatic posts, which could be announced after a reorganization that Ban ordered is complete. Now out of the running for the humanitarian post, the US is seeking the top political-affairs post – a possibility that some UN experts say could actually run counter to US interests by making the UN look too much like a tool of American diplomacy.
Yet other appointments could suggest a worrying turn to UN insiders and inexperienced officials, some say. "On the negative side, I think we're seeing some very questionable appointments," says Mr. Gardiner. "Ban has to be very firm on reform, and while the quick action on the UNDP is a good sign, some of his appointments look less promising."
Some critics are questioning Ban's naming of a Mexican environmentalist and bureaucrat long involved in Latin America development issues to be in charge of reform, or of Tanzania's foreign minister, Asha-Rose Migiro, as his deputy.
This week, Ban has attended the African Union summit in Ethiopia, and he'll be in Washington on Friday for a meeting on the Middle East with other international officials.
A public official with more than three decades of experience maneuvering the tricky diplomatic straits of the Korean peninsula, Ban demonstrated his political acumen by moving fast on the questions about international aid to North Korea: Not only was he recognizing the damage another festering scandal could do to the UN, experts say, but he was also highlighting that this was a problem he inherited, not one of his administration's doing.
"What I sense is a leader very determined to protect his reputation and that of the UN," says Lee Feinstein, an expert in international organizations at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
As important as that may be, it will matter to the world most if Ban uses the strengths flowing from a refurbished UN image to pursue some daunting long-term goals, Mr. Feinstein says. Those goals, he says, include enhanced peacekeeping capacity and the means to head off future repeats of global humanitarian crises – such as what occurred in Rwanda in the mid-1990s and what many consider genocide that is now transpiring in Sudan's Darfur region.
"Can he put some meat on the bones of the concept the [UN] General Assembly endorsed of a 'responsibility to protect' when member states don't protect their own citizens?" Feinstein queries.
Aside from such lofty notions, Ban is also demonstrating what some consider freshness – or what others call unwise unguardedness. An unscripted Ban told reporters in response to questions about the execution of Saddam Hussein that the death penalty is a matter for individual countries to decide. That touched off an uproar among human rights activists who said the UN was on record in opposition to the death penalty – and it caused Ban to quip that he had been given the shortest honeymoon of any UN secretary-general.
He has also offered peeks at what those who know him say is a keen sense of humor. For example, he lavished praise on journalist Sam Donaldson at a Washington news conference, then deadpanned that it was a "great pleasure" to take a question from him. He also used a familiar Christmas tune (Guess which one?) to "warn" UN correspondents at a year-end dinner:
I'm making a list,
I'm checking it twice
I'm going to find out who's naughty or nice
Ban Ki Moon is coming to town.
He's also quickly showing aides carried over from the last UN administration how he is different from Annan. For example, whereas Annan was happy to have a synopsis of the news faxed to his Astor Place home to peruse over breakfast, Ban wants his personal morning-news briefing early and in the office.
"I told my wife that hours may have been long under Annan," one assistant in the secretary-general's operations says, "but that she should plan on them being even longer under Ban Ki Moon."