DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:
Somalia is just one of the crises that will claim the attention of the man about to take over as United Nations secretary-general. With the new year, Kofi Annan hands that job over to a South Korean diplomat, Ban Ki-Moon.
NPR's Michele Kelemen has this profile.
MICHELE KELEMEN: A soft-spoken, mild-mannered diplomat, Ban Ki-Moon 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 KI: Your colleagues in Korea may have dubbed me the Slippery Eel because I was too charming for them to be able to catch me. But I promise today that I can be a pretty straight shooter when I need to.
KELEMEN: And a hard worker. He's 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. Ban Ki-Moon 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.
KI: You could say that I'm a man on a mission, and my mission could be dubbed Operation Restore Trust. Trust in the organization and trust between member states and the secretariat. I hope this mission is not mission impossible.
KELEMEN: 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.
THOMAS PICKERING: He talked about his commitment to reform and the need for that. I was impressed that he had thought a lot about what his administration would look like, and he thought a lot about what would be important from the U.S. perspective.
KELEMEN: 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. Still, he's not showing much stress, according to Edward Luck of Columbia University.
EDWARD LUCK: I don't think anyone who's dealt with North Korea for all these years and dealt with the politics in South Korea, for that matter, could be too worried about the difficulty of dealing with the U.S. because obviously, there have been big differences between Seoul and Washington on any number of issues about how to handle North Korea and the nuclear issue. And I don't think that's going to bother him too much.
KELEMEN: Ban Ki-Moon was born in 1944 and was a child during the Korean War. Luck says the new secretary-general saw the United Nations and other multilateral institutions at work in his country, helping South Korea develop into what it is today.
LUCK: He's seen the country go from being destitute and war-torn, to becoming one of the largest and most successful economies in the world.
KELEMEN: 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.
KI: It has been a long journey from my youth in war-torn and destitute Korea to this rostrum and these awesome responsibilities. I could make the journey because the U.N. was with my people in the darkest of days.
KELEMEN: 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 Ki-Moon's calm manner served him well through these crises. As for his nickname, the Slippery Eel, she says Ban is quite a frank person in small, private conversations.
SHIN WA LEE: He always listens first, by the way. He's not a kind of person who tries to speak out with his own voice so that block other people's talking. Maybe he wants to be more diplomatic.
Ban Ki-Moon 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.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.