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Global Players

July 2009

Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General, the United Nations

“The policies that they have stated so far are not enough”

— Ban Ki-Moon commenting on the recent G8 global warming policies

With the meeting in L’Aquila, Italy over, the G8 leaders smiled as they realized they had accomplished their goals- slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Or so they thought. Until Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General raised his voice. The typically quiet spoken UN head chastised the leaders for not making sufficient and more specific commitments towards reducing these emissions.

The criticism is typical of Ban, who is known for his penchant for detail and the lack of a subservient demeanor while addressing his seniors. Among those in the Korean Foreign Ministry, he is fondly known as “Ban-jusa”, meaning “the bureaucrat.” Ban recognized the threat of global warming very early and has made it one of his primary concerns while at the helm of the UN. His recent G8 meeting reproach is characteristic of a diffident manner that stands out in sharp contrast with his predecessor Kofi Annan who was flamboyant, charismatic and eloquent. But Ban has often been the subject of criticism leveled at him for being a poor listener and an inefficient communicator. He is famous for his ability to dodge questions, subsequently earning himself yet another nickname, ‘the slippery eel.’ But paradoxically in a survey by World Public Opinion, he has emerged as the second-highest ranked world political leader who inspires confidence next to U.S. President Barack Obama.

Ban was born in the farming village of Eumseong when Korea was ruled by the Japanese. Although his childhood was challenged against the backdrop of the Korean War, he was not deterred from pursuing his passion to perfect his English. Local stories recount that Ban regularly walked six miles to a fertilizer plant to practice English with its American supervisors. And while on an American Red Cross program in 1962 at the age of 18, Ban muses that the seeds of his diplomatic career were sown when he met President John F. Kennedy at the White House. From there he went on to graduate from Seoul National University and obtained his Masters degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Ban’s eventual career in diplomacy took off when he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1970, which included postings in New Delhi, Vienna and Washington, D.C. Ban finally entered mainstream politics when he became the foreign minister of Korea in 2004; two years later, he was elected the UN Secretary-General.

While Kofi Annan was known for his grand outward gestures and bold approach to situations, the new Secretary-General prefers a more subdued approach, choosing to be a quiet negotiator and a self-described “harmonizer, balancer and mediator.” Ban likens his work ethic and tenacity to the lessons learned from the Korean War, intending to honor the commitment organizations like the U.N. made in the rebuilding of North Korea.

Indeed, much of Ban’s style and world view for peace were honed while in his Foreign Ministry service to North Korea. In 1992, he became the Vice Chairman of the South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission after fostering the historic Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In 2005, as Foreign Minister, Ban had a key role in bringing about another yet another agreement aimed at promoting peace and stability between North and South Korea. Ban was made the Secretary-General just days after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, which served to fan his vision further.

The Secretary-General now spends most of his time on the road travelling to where crisis beckons. And in the 30 months since his ascendancy, Ban has managed to pull off a few diplomatic feats. He began by channeling the African Union peacekeeping forces into Darfur, and then overcoming the stone cold resistance of Burma’s military regime to allow humanitarian aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. More recently, Ban inspected refugee camps in Sri Lanka to ensure the proper care of the war uprooted civilians.

Ban Ki-Moon, the eighth man and the second Asian to fill the post of UN Secretary-General, has soon discovered that being a peacekeeper is not easy. But he notes, “I may look soft from the outside, but I have inner strength when it’s really necessary.” It appears that Ban’s recent G8 encounter is apt testimony to these words.





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