S. Korean Is Lead Candidate for U.N.'s Top Spot

The United Nations Security Council is holding a vote Monday that could shed more light on who will be the next secretary general. So far, the leading candidate is South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:

The race for the next United Nations secretary general could become a bit clearer this week. The Security Council is to hold what could be a decisive vote tomorrow.

Kofi Annan's term runs out at the end of this year and the U.S. has been pushing to get a new person elected soon to have time to settle in.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Monday's vote will be make or break for South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon. He's won all three straw polls in the Security Council so far. On Monday he'll learn whether he has the backing of all five permanent Security Council members, the ones with veto power. Those five will have different colored ballots to distinguish their votes, something U.S. Ambassador John Bolton has been encouraging.

JOHN BOLTON: We are more and more rapidly approaching from the Security Council's point of view the critical decision.

KELEMEN: Bolton has made clear the U.S. wants to see a good manager in the job. He says the U.N. charter calls for a chief administrative officer. But others are seeking a diplomat in chief, so the candidates, including Ban Ki Moon, have had to appeal to both sides in their campaigns.

BAN KI MOON: I intend to be more visibly engaged in addressing the regional conflict issues while delegating the significant portion of my day to day management to deputy secretary general or undersecretaries general.

KELEMEN: Meeting with the Asia Society in New York, Ban said if chosen he'd want to play a larger role in resolving the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East, in Darfur, Sudan, and in his own backyard, the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

Ban, who has spent a good deal of his career working on U.S./Korean relations, has also sought to reassure the U.S. that he understands the need to be personally responsible for management reforms.

William Luers of the United Nations Association of the United States of America says Ban has handled that issue well in private meetings.

WILLIAM LUERS: He's been very, very astute about not turning off anybody on that issue, because that's a hot button for a lot of people.

KELEMEN: Kofi Annan's legacy is shaping this campaign in many ways. Luers says that the role of the secretary general has expanded during Annan's ten years on the job, with a growing number of U.N. peacekeepers around the world and a larger role in dealing with humanitarian crises.

LUERS: The U.N. is just a bigger shop to manage, and so even though Kofi has been criticized for maybe not being the strong manager that the Americans would like, or others would like, he's built a place that needs a lot of management.

KELEMEN: One U.S. official privately joked that whoever becomes the secretary general will probably be everyone's third choice. The U.S. was quietly backing Latvia's president, the only woman in the race, but Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, made clear last week his country will sink her chances.

VITALY CHURKIN: Why be coy about it? You all know that we have quite serious problems in our relations with Latvia, which go back to the situation of Russians. Russian speakers in that country is at close to 40 percent of them are non-citizens or regarded as aliens. We find it completely unacceptable.

KELEMEN: There is always a chance that a dark horse could emerge if current candidates drop out or a permanent member vetoes South Korea's Ban Ki Moon. If he pulls through, on the other hand, U.N. watchers say this could be a first: a largely uncontested and transparent race to decide who takes over the U.N. for the next five years.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Washington.

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