Ban Ki-Moon: Diplomat with a difference

Kofi Annan's successor as Secretary-General of the United Nations is determined to make his mark. But few inside the organisation's New York HQ know what makes him tick

David Usborne
Monday 01 January 2007 01:00

Shortly before Christmas, Ban Ki-moon, who today formally takes over as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, paid a courtesy visit to his future office on the 38th floor of UN headquarters in New York.

All curiosity about his new job, the soft-spoken former South Korean foreign minister sat for a while with Alicia Bárcena, the chef de cabinet of the departing Kofi Annan.

"Well," he said, "take me through a typical day of the Secretary-General." Ms Bárcena replied that it usually began with a nine o'clock meeting with the inner circle of advisors. Mr Ban stopped her right there. "Nine o'clock?" he asked in bewilderment. "Why not eight o'clock?" Ms Bárcena stuttered that there was no good reason not to begin an hour earlier except that there would be no one in the building.

Since the post of the most powerful diplomat in the world was handed by a unanimous vote of the Security Council to Mr Ban in October, there has been a blanket of secrecy around his transition plans that many in the building have found deeply unsettling. What will be his first actions? How many outsiders will he bring with him? What's he like?

That there should be a measure of suspense is hardly surprising. Mr Annan, who vacated his office among some tears on the Friday before Christmas - as promised, Mark Malloch Brown, his British deputy, carried his bag out of the building in an emotional tribute to his boss - took over the world body 10 years ago and served two five year terms. But the Ghanaian Mr Annan, who replaced Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was an open book to everyone, having already served for decades in the UN hierarchy, including as head of peacekeeping.

The arrival of Mr Ban, 62, however, represents the first time that the UN will undergo a real regime change in a long while, or at least since Mr Boutros-Ghali flew in as a fresh face from Cairo in 1991. No one expects business under Mr Ban to be business as usual.

If Mr Ban has been coy about his plans - there have been no first-hundred-day declarations or public hints about appointments to senior jobs - it is not, as some in the building are starting to believe, that he will be arriving cold. On the contrary, before returning to Seoul for a final week of rest over Christmas, he and his tight entourage of South Korean aides were busier in town (and Washington) than many realise.

His inner circle of about five close advisors - picked from the foreign ministry in Seoul and from South Korean embassies in the US - will ride up to the 38th floor this morning. Never mind that it is a public holiday. The unofficial leader of the inner circle is Won Soo-Kim, an energetic diplomat who serves as the Secretary-General's right-hand man. They will move the furniture, almost literally, for Mr Ban, who will arrive tomorrow, early.

That he will be a hard worker is no revelation. Within the glowing mythology being spun about him in his native South Korea is a story of how, as a young man after the Korean War, he used to walk six miles from his village near the city of Chengdu every day to visit a fertiliser factory to learn English by conversing with workers. When the Security Council was considering candidates for Secretary-General, he took evening classes in French, even as he was still foreign minister, for fear that France would block his candidacy otherwise. He organises his daily diary in five-minute blocks.

"Mr Ban will rely on hard work to do this job," one western diplomat who has become familiar with him commented at the weekend, "whereas Kofi relied more on his charm."

This may have been a back-handed compliment for both gentlemen. In his own, faltering way, however, Mr Ban has been trying to show a degree of humour from behind his mask of inscrutability. A week before he was due to appear at a December gala for UN correspondents, he received a draft of the speech he would give. It required some bravery on his part, mostly because of one section he would sing. In the days before, during a visit to Paris, he practised privately to himself over and over again.

In the event, Mr Ban almost fluffed the line. He started, stumbled, but went back and started again. It was a bastardised rendering of lines for the Christmas song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". He crooned: "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!"

There was another joke too, perhaps inspired by a visit with his wife, Yoo Soon-Taek, a couple of weeks earlier to a Manhattan cinema to see Casino Royale. He said: "The name is Ban. Not James Ban. But I am coming in '07." The correspondents laughed politely, but the reports of the speech caused a fit of national hilarity back in South Korea, where he was nicknamed the "slippery eel".

But '07 has arrived and the time for joking is over. Some of his earliest priorities have also been spelled out in the few speeches he has made since his appointment. He has articulated three of them in particular. They are to proceed immediately with the faltering reform of the institution, find ways to modernise the staff structure and increase the mobility of senior officials and, finally, strive to repair strained ties between the secretariat and the UN member states.

The last of those tasks will mean focusing in particular on the ragged relationship with Washington. Among those with whom his team has been liaising most closely is Bob Orr, an American (married to a South Korean) currently serving as an assistant secretary general for strategic planning. Another American edging into the Ban circle is Ed Luck, a UN specialist at New York's Columbia University. Mr Ban also travelled during December to Washington, where those he met included the influential former US Ambassador to the UN, Thomas Pickering.

"He talked about the need for reform and his commitment to that," Mr Pickering noted later. "I was impressed that he thought a lot about what his administration would look like and he thought a lot about what it would look like from the US perspective."

That there will be a core of South Koreans around Mr Ban, at least in the first instance, is inevitable. With so much on his plate, he can be forgiven for wanting a few trusted faces in his office. Mr Won may very well stay in town and so may a young specialist in communications from the foreign ministry in Seoul, Soung-ah Choi, an American citizen who returned to South Korea a few years ago.

Rumour has it that Mr Ban is concerned that the UN is too leaky, but that does not mean he will downplay press relations. On the contrary, he has already reached out to at least one figure in the mainstream American press to join his team. In his search for a new press spokesperson - a new public face for the institution - he has approached Michelle Montas, a former director of Haiti's main radio station until she fled the country in 2003 and now a correspondent for UN radio. (Her late husband, Jean Dominique, headed the station in Haiti until 2000 when he was assassinated.) The departing spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, is likely to go upstairs to serve as Mr Ban's communications director.

More importantly - particularly as far as many foreign capitals are concerned - will be the identities of the roughly 100 under and assistant secretary generals in the building. Current contracts for most of them run out at the end of February. Mr Ban will bide his time, however, while he considers a rearranging some of the UN's departments, possibly along geographical lines. Before then - possibly as soon as this week - he must announce who will serve as his deputy Secretary-General and his new chef de cabinet. The word from the Ban camp is that the former is likely to be a woman from a Third World country - Thoraya Obeid of Saudi Arabia is one name circulating - and a man from the so-called "North" as the new chef. A front-runner here is Hedi Annabi, the head of peacekeeping under Mr Annan.

There are plenty of senior officials from the Annan reign, meanwhile, who want desperately to remain in their posts and are on tenterhooks.

Some advice: don't underestimate Mr Ban as he takes over and, most of all, don't let the building stand empty at eight in the morning.

The challenges


Ban Ki-moon will have to pick up the pieces of failed UN attempts to persuade the Sudanese government to end the conflict in the western province of Darfur, where the air force bombed two rebel locations just after a visit by the head of the African Union peacekeeping force to the area. In a further blow to peace efforts, the UN peacekeeping department has concluded it would not be appropriate to dispatch a UN force to neighbouring Chad.

North Korea

Mr Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, has already suggested that he might serve as a UN envoy in brokering talks with North Korea, but the US is likely to stamp on such an idea as the South Koreans have advocated engagement with the North, rather than the tougher approach favoured by the Bush administration.


A new showdown looms between the UN and Iran over Tehran's refusal to halt its nuclear activities in line with a resolution adopted on Christmas Eve, but the Security Council is expected to keep the secretary general on the sidelines.

UN reform

Ban takes office promising UN reform, but it remains to be seen whether he can tackle the prerogatives of the member states in order to streamline decision-making.

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