When North Korea carried out its first nuclear test at the same time as a South Korean was rising to election as the United Nations' next secretary-general, many observers concluded it was no coincidence.
With South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon slated to become the "world's top diplomat," North Korea used its test in part to detract from Mr. Ban's triumph, some experts say, and to remind the world that it won't be intimidated by any circumstances.
Ban won't take the chair being vacated by Kofi Annan until January. But some officials are already suggesting that a Korean secretary-general will make a difference – and could even be helpful – as the world deals with the Korean peninsula's nuclear crisis.
Others see little impact, mainly because the power to influence the next developments in the crisis rests largely with North Korea and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But even they say Ban – who has already talked of naming a special envoy to North Korea – can't help but have some influence, if for no other reason than he has had the North on his plate every day as South Korea's foreign minister. That was evident Thursday when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, >visiting Northeast Asia this week to encourage implementation of strict UN sanctions against North Korea, met with Ban on her stop in Seoul.
"The fact Ban has dealt with the nuclear issue and knows it well is encouraging, because he becomes secretary-general at a time when nuclear proliferation is one of the biggest issues," says Edward Luck, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York.
"But traditionally, the [secretary- general] is not expected to be too close to dealing with his homeland or a country hostile to his homeland," he adds. "When the secretary-general does try to get too involved in an area where he has a track record, it's very awkward."
Still, diplomats involved in the Korean issue say Ban will be helpful simply because of his knowledge of the conditions and people tied to it. "My sense is that Ban knows the whole case quite well: He knows his counterparts," says Li Junhua, counselor to China's mission to the UN. "All of this will contribute and be positive for finding a way out."
Secretary Rice was to be in Beijing Friday, where she is expected to seek clarifications on China's approach to the tough sanctions on North Korea that the Security Council – including China – approved Oct. 14. Realistic hopes for the sanctions' effectiveness center on China, the North's biggest benefactor and closest ally, US officials say. (See related story.)
China caused confusion after the new Security Council resolution was passed by saying it would not enforce a measure calling for inspections of cargo entering and leaving North Korea.
Rice's quick dispatch to Asia to secure compliance with the sanctions, not to mention the North's insistence on direct talks with the United States, only underscore what many experts say about the Korean crisis: that it will be largely the US that determines the path the North Korean crisis takes. "The North wants to negotiate with Washington, not the UN," says Mr. Luck.
Still, some UN officials draw comparisons between Ban's case and that of other UN leaders. Referring to the term of the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who served as secretary-general from 1992 to 1997, one UN official says, "Boutros-Ghali came here when the UN was part of the dealings with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and his experience with the issue was widely seen as essentially helpful."
Requesting the customary diplomatic anonymity because of his contact with the secretary-general's dealings, the official says, "If you look back, you see Israel appreciated the work [Mr. Boutros-Ghali] had done as an Egyptian diplomat on the Camp David accords, so really his presence was seen as a positive precedent."
But Boutros-Ghali also ran into a wall of resistance when he tried to get personally involved in Somalia, Luck says. "His efforts weren't appreciated by some of the actors in that crisis, and he was rebuffed," he says.
Where Ban may be more influential, officials and experts seem to agree, is simply in keeping the nuclear-proliferation issue on the UN's priority list – especially with the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions about to return to the Security Council.