Creating people's geographies
By Paul Holmes and Evelyn Leopold | Sat Oct 14, 2006 6:07 AM ET
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The next secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, pledged on Friday to be a decisive leader and cautioned those who call him low-key not to mistake him for a pushover.
“I may look low-key or (be) soft-spoken but that does not mean that I lack leadership or commitment,” Ban told Reuters in his first formal interview since his appointment by acclamation by the 192-member General Assembly on Friday.
Modesty and humility were considered virtues by Asians, he said, but should not be misunderstood.
“I take decisive decisions whenever it is necessary,” he said when asked about published reports his style made him an uncompelling choice for the job.
Ban, who is South Korea’s foreign minister, comfortably beat six rivals to win the U.N. Security Council’s nomination to succeed Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who has led the world body since 1997.
Only the second Asian to head the United Nations, Ban will take over on January 1 but said he wanted to start work on the transition as soon as possible. An aide said Ban could move to New York as soon as next month.
Ban made clear he would travel extensively, delegating much of the day-to-day running of the 9,000-strong U.N. bureaucracy to a deputy.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has said Annan’s successor should focus more on managing than on diplomacy, a view Ban delicately contradicted.
“The administrative burden of the secretary-general is too much,” Ban said. “I will try to balance my work as a political leader as well as an administrative leader.”
‘AN IMPOSSIBLE JOB’
Ban will start his five-year term in what Annan has called the world’s most impossible job with a daunting agenda that stretches from the threats of nuclear proliferation and terrorism to reform of the United Nations itself.
Ban sidestepped questions about future responses to North Korea’s nuclear weapons test, such as whether he would be ready to visit Pyongyang early next year to help defuse tensions.
The 15-member Security Council planned to vote on Saturday on a resolution, backed by Ban, imposing economic and arms sanctions on North Korea in response to the underground blast last Monday.
Ban, who became foreign minister in January 2004, has been closely involved in his country’s dealings with North Korea and international efforts to settle the nuclear crisis with the communist government.
He declined to discuss possible senior-level changes at the world body, saying only he would ensure his choices were up to the job.
He mapped out a businesslike approach to reform, saying that while it would be difficult to shrink the United Nations and its various agencies, they had to work at full steam.
“We need to find out the comparative, competitive edge of each and every agency,” Ban said in the interview, held in South Korea’s U.N. mission across the street from U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s East River.
“It is necessary to maximize the strength and minimize the redundancy. … We need to use already limited resources in a more effective, efficient way,” he said.
DREAM COME TRUE
A career diplomat who graduated at the top of his class in international relations from Seoul National University, he has served three times at his country’s U.N. mission in New York.
His most recent tour was as chief of staff to the South Korean president of the General Assembly, which opened a day after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
South Korean and other diplomats who have worked with him describe Ban as a skilled mediator and manager who is popular with staff and tirelessly hard-working.
Ban was born to a farming family in 1944 in the town of Chungju and is married to a woman he met at high school. They have two daughters and one son.
In an acceptance speech delivered in English and French, he recalled being chosen by his school at age 12 to read out a message to the United Nations asking for help for the Hungarian people during the 1956 uprising.
“I hardly understood the deeper meaning of the message. But I knew that the U.N. was there for help in times of need,” Ban said.
He told Reuters he had dreamed of being a diplomat since he was a boy but had not imagined he could be U.N. secretary- general until after he became foreign minister.
“Now I have realized my dream,” he said.
© Reuters 2006.