New U.N. Secretary General Has All the Right Moves

Ban Ki-Moon

Future United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, Dec. 26, 2006. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

It's been a long month of goodbyes for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. But today it is official: He will be handing over the reins to longtime South Korean diplomat Ban Ki-Moon.

The new man at the helm of the U.N. is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered diplomat, but he seems to be working on his public persona. He's even trying his hand at humor — opening a recent speech by saying his name is Ban... not James Bond. Then there's the joke he repeated at a news conference about a nickname he was given by journalists in Korea — The Slippery Eel — for dodging reporters' questions.

Ban is said to have wanted the job so much that, even while serving as South Korea's foreign minister, he spent weekends trying to learn French to make sure France — a permanent Security Council member — wouldn't block him from becoming secretary general. He has also been working a tough crowd in Washington, promising to put U.N. management reforms high on his things-to do-list and to improve U.S.-U.N. ties, which have been strained by the war in Iraq.

"You could say that I'm a man on the mission and my mission could be dubbed 'Operation Restore Trust.' Trust in the organization and trust between member states and the Secretariate," Ban says. "I hope this mission is not mission impossible."

When Ban made the rounds in Washington in early December, he sat down with some experts, including a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Thomas Pickering.

"He talked about the need for reform and his commitment to that," Pickering said. "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 U.S. perspective."

Many U.N. watchers say Ban is under a lot of pressure from Washington to clean house at the U.N., even though the secretary general doesn't have all the power to hire and fire. Despite the pressure, he's not showing much stress, according to Edward Luck of Columbia University.

"I don't think anyone who has dealt with North Korea for all these years or dealt with the politics of South Korea, for that matter, could be too worried about the difficulty of dealing with the U.S.," Luck says.

Ban was born in 1944 and was a child during the Korean War. Luck says the new secretary general saw the U.N and other multilateral institutions at work in his country, helping South Korea develop into what it is today.

"He's seen the country destitute and war-torn, to becoming one of the largest and most successful economies in the world," Luck says.

It was a theme the new secretary general brought up in his acceptance speech to the U.N. General Assembly in October, right after he was picked by the Security Council.

"It has been a long journey from my youth in war-torn and destitute Korea — to this rostrum and these awesome responsibilities," Ban said. "I could make the journey because the U.N. was with my people in the darkest of days."

Ban studied international relations in Seoul and has a Master's degree from Harvard. He worked his way up the ranks of South Korea's foreign ministry and had to deal with some serious crises as foreign minister — from the beheading of a South Korean worker in Iraq to the ever-threatening nuclear North Korea.

Shin Wa Lee, a professor at Korea University, says Ban's calm manner served him well through these crises. As for his nickname, "The Slippery Eel," she says that Ban is quite a frank person in small, private conversations.

"He always listens, by the way," Shin says. "He's not the kind of person who tries to speak out with his own voice to block other people's talking. Maybe he wants to be more diplomatic."

Ban has said he wants to be a harmonizer. Few observers expect him to speak out much early in his tenure as U.N secretary general — a sharp departure from Kofi Annan's style of late.

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