The Man Who Would Be Kofi

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Ban Ki-moon, Foreign Minister of South Korea, at U.N. headquarters in New York. Ban is a candidate for the upcoming election for U.N. Secretary General.

The lowest point of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon's two-year tenure came in June 2004, when a Korean translator working in Iraq was captured and beheaded on video by insurgents. The brutal act enraged the South Korean public, many of whom opposed the planned dispatch of further Korean troops to Iraq, and much of that anger was directed squarely at Ban and the Foreign Ministry. Taxis in Seoul refused to pick up foreign service officers, and there were public calls for Ban's resignation. But instead of panicking, Ban calmly announced that he would be reassessing the ministry, eventually adding a 24-hour telephone hotline that South Koreans abroad could call if they needed help. The rage dissipated, Ban has gone on to become one of South Korea's most respected foreign ministers — and Korean soldiers still made it to Iraq, much to the satisfaction of their U.S. allies.

It was a trademark performance by the man who calls himself a "harmonizer" — quiet but effective. Now Ban, a Harvard-educated diplomat who has served his country for 36 years in New Delhi, Washington and at the United Nations, may face the ultimate diplomatic challenge. After winning Thursday's most recent straw U.N. Security Council straw poll, Ban has solidified his status as the front-runner in the race to replace Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is required to step down after completing his second term in the job at the end of 2006. If Ban wins — a big if, given the unpredictable politics of Secretary-General races — he'd be the first Asian to lead the U.N. since the Burmese diplomat U Thant in the 1960s. And it would be a big win for South Korea, which in many ways is the U.N.'s best success story, fighting off a North Korean invasion and rising from the ashes of war to become one of the world's most vibrant economies, all with significant help from the U.N. That explains why South Korea's normally contentious politicians — fistfights between opposing parties are not uncommon in the country's parliament — have united behind Ban's candidacy.

It helps as well that the soft-spoken and French-fluent minister seems incapable of making enemies. Though relations between South Korea and Japan are worse today than they have been in decades, Japanese diplomats generally like the 62-year-old Ban himself. That matters, as Japan is currently holds one of the 10 rotating seats on the Security Council. Ban has also received enthusiastic support from Australia. But the deciding vote will likely be cast by China, one of the Council's five veto-wielding permanent members. If the South Korean is viewed by Beijing as too close to Washington, he may find China cool to his candidacy. Ironically, however, there's also a danger that South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's rocky relationship with Washington could cool U.S. support for Ban. Another drawback is his lack of international stature. Ban's highest-profile role has been in the Six-Party talks to defuse North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which ultimately yielded almost nothing — although that frustrating experience could be good practice for life in the U.N. But in a race typically won by the candidate most widely viewed as least objectionable, the collegial South Korean is clearly a front-runner.