Quiet South Korean minister set to succeed Annan at UN

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Indy Politics

Just as the race to succeed the secretary general of the United Nations has been discreet and mostly free of public drama, so a front-runner has emerged who is known for his mild manner and absence of showmanship. Ban Ki Moon, the self-effacing Foreign Minister of South Korea, has risen to the top of a field of seven candidates for arguably the toughest civil service job in the world thanks to his reputation as a skilled behind-the-scenes mediator and resolute manager.

His victory was all but assured late on Monday after a final informal poll among the 15 envoys on the Security Council. Mr Ban, who is 62 and a graduate of Harvard, won 14 "encourage" votes and only one "no opinion". Most importantly, he won nods from all of the veto-wielding permanent members.

Final congratulations will likely come next Monday, when the Security Council is set formally to ask Mr Ban to lead a body with 9,000 workers, a $2bn (£1.1bn) budget and the scars of recent scandals, notably in the now defunct Iraqi oil-for-food programme. His appointment for a first five-year term will then be handed to the General Assembly for its approval, which is seen as a mere formality.

Among those disappointed is Shashi Tharoor, who has served with Kofi Annan as an assistant secretary general. Championed by his native India, Mr Tharoor, 50, withdrew after Monday's poll, acknowledging that Mr Ban's position was unassailable. "It is a great honour and a huge responsibility to be secretary general," he said in a brief statement, "and I wish Mr Ban every success in that task."

Although one of the late entrants to the race was the President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, there has long been a tacit understanding in the Security Council that the eighth secretary general of the UN would come from Asia. The last Asian to lead the body was U Thant of Burma, who left office in 1971.

For South Korea, the selection of Mr Ban holds some historical satisfaction. The country, after all, owes its existence to the UN, which established its border in 1948 and provided blue-helmet troops to defend it during the Korean War. "We Koreans have quite literally risen from the ashes of war," he said recently.

Mr Ban, who was born in the rural town of Chungju in central South Korea in 1944 and is married to a childhood sweetheart, has nurtured ambitions to be a global diplomat since his teens.

At the age of 18 he found himself selected by the International Red Cross to travel to the United States, where he was taken to the White House and introduced to President John F Kennedy. Already he knew his calling, and later studied international relations at Seoul University, before attending the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

His career has been threaded with connections both to the US and the United Nations. Before becoming Foreign Minister in 2004, he served as chief aide to the president of the UN's General Assembly, also from South Korea, for one year after September 2001. Among their first challenges was crafting the UN's response to the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.

That Mr Ban is considered a close ally of Washington is no secret, and he enjoyed the firm backing during the polling process of the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. "The United States is very pleased with the outcome," Mr Bolton acknowledged on Monday night. Closeness to the US can bring peril to a secretary general, however, and Mr Ban can be expected to downplay its significance.

In London, the Foreign Office is also expressing quiet approval. "We are very happy with him coming through," a senior British official said. Less certain is the ardour of France, which normally insists that a secretary general speaks fluent French. Mr Ban is reportedly taking lessons.

The charisma deficit may yet prove a problem for a man whose job includes being a voice for peace on the world stage. Insiders say that when he speaks publicly, Mr Ban can be halting, and relies on prepared notes. Yet he has publicly insisted in recent days that his external demeanour can be deceiving. "I may look soft from the outside, but I have inner strength when it's really necessary," he commented. "I have always been very decisive."

He signalled yesterday, that pressing forward with UN reform and streamlining its bureaucracy would be a first priority.

"I will try to change the whole mindset of the United Nations Secretariat," he warned, adding that he would work first to "restore the confidence of the United Nations".

Is Ban the right man for the job?

Critics Say: Ban lacks a key ingredient for the post of world spokesman for peace and development: charisma.

He Says: It's the Asian way. Behind the low-key exterior lies a man of passion and persuasion.

Critics Say: South Korea in effect bought the job by recently announcing large aid packages to developing countries, particularly in Africa.

He Says: Reports were a "smear campaign" against him and that aid deals were agreed by Seoul long before he launched his candidacy.

Critics Say: Ban may not have the steel to deal with world crises in Middle East and elsewhere.

He Says: He has experience confronting the worst problems, keeping the peace on the Korean peninsula and confronting North Korea on its nuclear ambitions.