BAN KI-MOON had just turned six in June 1950 when the Korean War began. His family sought refuge from the bloody conflict in a mountain hamlet so remote, he said, even the soldiers fighting below didn’t know it was there.
The United Nations was a day shy of its fifth birthday when the fighting started. The fledgling organization, already riven by the great fissures of the Cold War, would find in that war the first of many
The UN helped South Korea heal itself in the wake of that dark fratricidal war. And in the more than five decades since, Ban MPA1984, far removed from that wartime seclusion, has pursued a diplomatic career dedicated to fostering peace and consensus. In January, that path seemed to come full circle with his appointment to head the global organization.
Nobody is more aware of the onerous responsibility that comes with the title of “world’s top diplomat” than Ban. But the honor is immense, he told the Bulletin in a recent interview.
"I feel very proud serving this organization, which is the only universal body to work for peace, security, development, and human rights, and this is a great honor,” he said. “But this is a big, big challenge for me.”
The challenges already appear to be piling up: crises in Darfur, Lebanon, and Somalia, the long-term problems of nuclear proliferation and climate change, to name only a few.
The United Nations also faces difficult internal challenges, including the call for institutional reform and division between the large industrialized powers and the developing world.
But Ban, 62, the UN’s eighth secretary general, says that as a Korean he brings a unique qualification.
"Many people believed South Korea was poised in a very ideal way in the international community, that it could play a bridging role between developed and developing countries,” he said, pointing to its economic and democratic development. “Having gone through all this very dynamic economic growth from the debris of the Korean War to being the 11th largest economic power, we understand all the challenges of developing countries.”
The eldest of six children, Ban was raised in a South Korea still digging out from under the rubble of the war. An academic standout, he entered the country’s diplomatic service after university.
His career has included postings in India, the United States, and Austria and repeated service with the UN, starting in 1975 when he worked for the foreign ministry’s UN division. It has also included stints as first secretary to South Korea’s permanent mission to the UN, and chef de cabinet during South Korea’s presidency of the General Assembly. Eventually in 2003, he was appointed South Korea’s foreign minister.
But if reconciliation and the UN have provided themes through his life, so has an American president.
Ban says his decision to embark on a career in service was sealed while still a teenager, following a visit to the Kennedy White House in 1962 during a trip to the United States organized by the Red Cross.
Two decades later, he would begin his graduate studies at the Kennedy School of Government. As a Mason Fellow, Ban was at the school for a year, but his time in Cambridge had an outsized influence on him.
"My days at the Kennedy School were really golden days in my lifetime,” he said. Ban enjoyed the intellectual freedom and also appreciated the school’s focus on the practical applications of that intelligence, in exercises such as mock security council debates.
But now that he is “playing real-world politics,” Ban is determined to play by his own rules.
Still sheltered from the celebrity and visibility that has inevitably come with the job, he says he is eager to introduce a new, more Asian style of leadership to the organization, one that is gracious and modest, but also strong-willed.
"My leadership style could be viewed as very soft-spoken or humble, but whenever a decisive moment comes, then I will make very firm decisions,” he says.
Only months into his tenure, that approach is already visible. He has made global climate change a signature issue, moving quietly but decisively to place that issue at the top of the UN’s agenda. Similarly he has worked to win Sudanese support of further UN involvement in the Darfur crisis, working patiently to create political conditions on the ground that would support peacekeeping operations.
He has also worked hard to improve the organization’s transparency, particularly after the oil-for-food and peacekeeper sex scandals did so much to tarnish its image. And he has vowed to make big changes to a management structure that has seriously limited the mobility of the organization’s 55,000 employees.
Still, despite the lofty goals and crammed agenda an important early lesson has been the realization of powerlessness, he says, only half-jokingly, explaining that any achievements are likely to come not from a stroke of the pen but from an “endless process of coordination and consultation.”
However they come, Ban understands from his own country’s experience how important those achievements are for the millions who look to the world body as their last hope.
"There are still many countries looking to the United Nations with high expectations,” he said. "Still, we are lacking resources, sometimes lacking political will, lacking active participation from the member states. This is what, as secretary general, I’m going to mobilize and change, to keep the United Nations as an eternal beacon for the international community.”
Photo: Kent Dayton