The diplomat in the lead to head the UN for the next decade is skilled in compromise – exhibiting a deliberately bland style that was expected to stand him in good stead during a UN Security Council poll Monday over a successor to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The candidacy of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon hinges on the five permanent members: the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia. While the outcome is still uncertain, the soft-spoken career diplomat is the only one of the current candidates who has the minimum of nine positive votes.
Mr. Ban has the support of the US, which wants the process wrapped up this month, and China is expected to give Ban the nod. Indeed, Ban's most saleable quality is his ability to get along with all sides, building consensus in the process. Ban's evenhanded approach, analysts say, may be what's needed to bring a semblance of harmony and cohesion among UN members.
"He's extremely nonpolitical," says Moon Jong In, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul. "He's willing to listen to anybody. He doesn't have charismatic leadership – he has consensual leadership."
Conservatives, while highly critical of the left-leaning government of President Roh Moo Hyun, agree. "At least he hasn't done any harm as foreign minister," says a retired business consultant here. "Conservatives like him. It would be a great thing if he became secretary-general."
In his 36-year career, Ban has proven the ultimate diplomat while treading gingerly as foreign minister for the past 32 months through the minefield of US-South Korean relations and North Korea's refusal to return to nuclear talks for nearly a year.
In fact, Han Song Ryol, North Korea's deputy permanent representative to the UN, told the leftist newspaper Hangyoreh that acceptance of Ban as Mr. Annan's successor would be "good for the Korean people" and that "nonaligned nations have a good feeling about him."
In a poll last week, Ban got 13 votes of "encouragement" against only one of "discouragement" and one giving "no opinion." Since the five permanent members have the power of veto, the "no opinion" vote," if cast by one of them, would knock him out of the race even before the General Assembly of all 192 members casts a binding vote on the Security Council's choice.
Ban has said with characteristic sangfroid that he's "reasonably confident" the five permanent members are on his side. That coolly stated view masks the intensity of a carefully modulated campaign in which he has often appeared to be emulating Annan's style.
Hosting Annan last May, Ban took turns with the secretary-general in pressing for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. But they quietly made plain that they did not agree with the US emphasis on the North's human rights or counterfeiting efforts, saying that nuclear weapons took top "priority."
The real issue may be whether Ban will be able to take a strong stand when countries and causes are at severe odds, as in the Middle East, and whether he will have the stamina to promote long-overdue reforms in the UN's bureaucracy. "I'm worried he might be too willing to compromise, says Park Nei Hei, a consultant to the Boston Consulting Group here. "His character may not be very effective."
Nonetheless, Ban endorsed the UN Security Council Resolution, adopted after North Korea test-fired seven missiles in early July, banning member nations from any trade or financial dealings that might support North Korea's missile program. But he opposed US pressure for widening existing sanctions.
Still, he then persuaded South Korea's President Roh to sublimate his distaste for the "tough" US policy and join President Bush last month in Washington in a call for a "broad comprehensive" approach to bring North Korea back to talks.
Ban avoids the North's human rights record, saying that severe criticism would only make matters worse. Still, in an address before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, he stated that his government supported "global action to strength the values of human rights and democracy."
Given his career path, Ban probably knows more about dealing with the UN than most of his competitors.
After graduating from top-ranked Seoul National University in 1970, he joined the foreign ministry's UN division, followed by a tour in the ministry's UN mission, and then the post of director of the UN mission. He also served in the Korean Embassy in Washington and, in 1985, picked up a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Ban rose to ambassador when he was posted to Vienna, where he served in 1999 as chairman of the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. His experience broadened when he was named Korea's chief envoy to the UN in September 2001.
Ban rests his candidacy in part on his response in that challenging period. The ministry credits him with a "facilitating role in the prompt adoption by the membership of the first resolution of the session condemning the terrorist attacks," all "pivotal in turning a year that started out in crisis and confusion into one of the most productive and reform-oriented for the General Assembly."
For Koreans, the post of UN secretary-general is the ultimate status symbol. With the image factor clearly in mind, Ban has pulled out all the stops, courting Security Council members far and wide. And while Ban is sensitive to the need to get along with the US, he is striving, diplomatically, not to appear too close to Washington.
The US positions on peaceful resolution of the North's nuclear issue and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula were "very good ones, leaving room for future negotiations," he said, in the language of gentle diplomacy that's been his hallmark.