“I may look soft from the outside,” he has said. “But I have inner strength when it’s really necessary.”
The 62-year-old diplomat pointed to his participation in the tense six-party talks over the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula as proof of that fortitude.
Critics, however, carp that Mr. Ban’s apparent willingness to overlook North Korea’s human-rights abuses in the interests of diplomacy — a reflection of his government’s ambiguous approach — suggests he is willing to sacrifice principle in the name of compromise. Nevertheless, that purposeful, low-profile approach has endeared him to the United States, not to mention China. That is one reason why several other leading Asian candidates for the UN job found it expedient to withdraw.
Washington, as the UN’s most powerful player and its biggest critic, clearly sees the propaganda benefit of having a secretary-general who represents one of Asia’s rags-to-riches success stories.
South Korea rose from wartime devastation to become the world’s 11th-largest economy, and as one of the earliest beneficiaries of UN peacekeeping, it remains an object lesson in conflict management.
Just as important is the prospect of a managerial leader who is almost certain not to make geopolitical waves while grappling with the problems of the UN’s bureaucracy, still recovering from the Iraq oil-for-food scandal.
Can Mr. Ban bring the UN back to its 1990s level of credibility, while playing the role of international mediator among nations that do not always appreciate being mediated?
Ban may be showing the stripes of a realist here — particularly in sorting out the new growing tensions between China, Japan, and North Korea. The fact that he is not a purist on North Korea human rights violations, which are outrageous, nonetheless give some hope that the North Koreans will agree to dance with Ban Ki Moon.
Ban’s biggest problem will be Kim Jong Il’s jealousy that someone south of the DMZ is now helping to run the world. This fact can’t be hidden from North Korea’s beleaguered citizens — who will see in Ban Ki Moon hope for their own situation and pride that “a Korean” is the world’s most important civil servant.
The vote in the UN Security Council — planned for today — on Ban Ki Moon’s ascension to Kofi Annan’s job may indeed have been one of the more important drivers of North Korea’s decision to test a nuclear weapon today.
— Steve Clemons