Ten days before the end of his term as the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations (UNSG), Ban Ki-moon once again hinted that he plans to run for South Korean president. During the interview, he said he was ready to “burn himself to sacrifice for the nation.”
Many in Korea were reminded of current President Park Geun-hye’s speech four years ago, when she said that she’d “marry the nation” and give everything to the country. The end results of her legacy as the first female president are beyond a national disgrace: special prosecution over a massive corruption scandal involving her confidant, a four percent support rate, her impeachment, and the break up of her party.
On the same day Ban heavily implied a bid for the presidency, 35 lawmakers from the anti-Park faction within the ruling Saenuri Party held a press conference to declare that they would leave the party and create a new one, called the New Reform Conservative Party (now known as the Barun Party). In addition, Saenuri’s most anticipated presidential candidate, Kim Moo-sung, announced that he wouldn’t run for president this time.
This is not coincidence but a concerted political move by Korean neo-cons. They need the former UNSG as their candidate, much more than Ban needs them for the 2017 presidential election. Ban was initially courted by President Park and the pro-Park faction of the party but Ban is clever enough to distance himself from her after the scandal.
However, Ban faces several ethical and political issues as a presidential candidate, especially under the current political uncertainty surrounding Park’s impeachment and divisive party politics.
Conflict of Interests
First of all, there is an ethical issue surrounding his candidacy as an immediately retired UNSG. Article 4(b) of the UN General Assembly Resolution 11(1) on Terms of the Appointment of the Secretary-General in 1946 states that “[b]ecause a secretary-general is a [confidant] of many governments, it is desirable that no Member should offer him, at any rate immediately on retirement, any governmental position in which his confidential information might be a source of embarrassment to other Members, and on his part a secretary-general should refrain from accepting any such position.” For this reason, Kurt Waldheim and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (two previous SGs) waited four to five years after their retirements from UNSG to run for the Austrian and Peruvian presidencies, respectively.
Why is Ban so rushed to announce his bid for the presidency this year? Ban is 72 years old. If he waited for the next term, as Weldheim or Cuellar did, he would be well into his mid-70s by the election.
Seoul’s representative to the UN, Oh Joon, defended Ban, saying the UN Resolution is only a recommendation and therefore not legally binding. Even if it’s not legally binding, there is still a moral question.
Worst UNSG Ever?
Ban’s retirement met with his own staff’s censure and no tears were shed, according to the UN staff unions. To many, his legacy will be as the worst UNSG, who was more interested in being a president than being a charismatic and visible UNSG.
Ban is certainly no darling for the Western media. The Economist has called him “the dullest and among the worst” UNSGs ever; Jonathan Tepperman for New York Times describes Ban as a “powerless observer.” For The Guardian, Ban is an “invisible man” while for The Telegraph he’s a “nowhere man.” James Traub of Foreign Policy even called for his resignation.
In the recent interview with the Korean press on his way back from New York to Seoul, the upset former UNSG accused the Western media of racism against him as a Korean, and blamed the indolence of UN staff for their criticisms against his righteous UN reforms. He also gave counterexamples where he was praised by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and President Barack Obama.
As a career diplomat, Ban has been good at serving the powerful. At home, he’s survived eight presidents from the military dictator Park Chung-hee to a human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun. At the UN, he managed to convince the P5 of the Security Council to elect him as UNSG, not once but twice. His “nowhere man” tactic might have worked for his top UN job. He was no one’s favorite but no one’s enemy, either.
However, whether this “nowhere man” tactic would work as a country’s president is highly questionable, as one needs to pursue national interests, not bow to great powers, in international relations. Ban is widely known as a pro-U.S. diplomat. With Trump’s presidency in the United States, however, whether Ban is able to curve Trump’s pro-Russia and confrontational China policies is also doubtful.
Problems With Crisis Management
Ban’s UN staff criticized his lack of charisma and fluency in English, and uninspiring communication skills. Ban read scripts written by his advisers, yet many senior heads of governments said they were disappointed by his lack of personal engagement.
Ban’s more serious failure, however, is on crisis management. He has been criticized for his failure to act in a timely manner on global crises, including the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka as well as migrant and refugee crises. Then there was the cholera outbreak in Haiti, which killed more than 9,000 Haitians while infecting at least 788,000. The disease spread from a UN peacekeeping camp in 2000, yet Ban only delivered an apology six years after the incident. There have also been numerous allegations of UN peacekeepers committing sexual abuse in the Central African Republic. Ban was silent on the immunity given to the accused UN personnel.
Many Koreans still remember the Sewol ferry sinking that resulted in the deaths of 314 innocent passengers, mostly teenage students. They’re disappointed with Ban’s silence on the incident while being skeptical about Ban’s crisis management, given his record at the UN.
Wanted by Conservatives, Hated by Progressives
At home, the “Choi-gate” scandal has changed Ban’s plan to ride on Park’s well-known support for his presidential candidacy. Ban kept on good terms with Park and her party. In 2015, he praised Park’s deal with the Japanese on wartime sex slaves and her hawkish policy toward the North.
This made him hugely unpopular among Korean democrats and progressives. They called Ban an “opportunist” and “traitor.” Opposition candidate Moon Jae-in criticized Ban’s presidential ambitions and branded him a core part of the “old establishment.”
Being a lifetime bureaucrat, Ban has no political base in Korea. Instead, he has a history of avoiding tricky situations and political rivalry. Regionalism still plays a big role in South Korean politics. The rivalry between the southeast (Gyeongsang) and southwest (Jeolla ) has long driven a political divide. Ban is from the middle region (Chungcheong) and he survived presidents from both Gyeongsang and Jeolla , thus gaining his nickname as an “oily eel.”
Ban has announced that he would be willing to work with any politicians who share the same values while ruling out joining a certain political party. With what seems to be solid ground for a natural alliance with the Barun Party, he has also approached the People’s Party to express his interest in working with them. He has more thorny relations with the supporters of Moon and late President Roh Moo-hyun, and the Justice Party, who criticize Ban’s political moves.
His first few official events since coming back to Korea were visiting the war memorial, talking to graduates about youth unemployment, and visiting a carehome in his home town. Ban called himself a “progressive conservative” with a clear intention to appeal to as the widest possible number of political groups. Yet Ban’s own team is composed of ex-diplomats, Chungcheong-based politicians, and ex-advisor for former President Lee Myung-bak, most of whom represent the country’s conservative voices.
His go-broad strategy doesn’t seem to have worked, as opponents have criticized Ban as a “political novice.”
Unlikely Reform, Likely Mismanagement
Lastly, there are more important issues regarding his candidacy. Despite his accumulated diplomatic experience, he suffers from a lack of political leadership, economic expertise, and reform-mindedness, the exact qualities South Korean voters desperately want from their new president after decades of corruption. Can 72-year-old lifetime diplomat Ban Ki-moon lead political reforms?
The answer is not quite promising. Ban is more likely to be a status quo leader.
Already, evidence of lack of transparency and mismanagement within the UN is mounting. At least two retired senior UN officials accused Ban of budget and human resources mismanagement. Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a former UN under-secretary general, said that the Secretariat was in a “process of decay” due to Ban’s failure to fill key posts. A former assistant secretary-general for field support, Anthony Bandury, also criticized poorly-supervised UN peacekeeping budgets and sclerotic ways of recruiting UN employees. The UN was failing, Bandury said, “thanks to colossal mismanagement.”
Last year, the UN staff union raised issues regarding the new online admin portal, called Umoja, Ban introduced. Umoja has cost $400 million so far, but its efficiency is in doubt. The union also complained that a private consultant, brought on by Ban as a reform measure, had mismanaged pension funds.
It’s also unlikely Ban could cut the powerful ties between politicians and conglomerates. Ban is already alleged to have received $230,000 from a businessman that bribed late President Roh. Ban’s brother and nephew have also been accused of bribery. Ban denies all the allegations.
Ban’s lack of efficiency and transparency with regard to UN reform remain highly relevant in the Korean context. He needs to a proven track record of strong leadership to initiate reforms and break rigid government-business ties in South Korea. So far, his ten-year record as UNSG tells the opposite story: that Ban Ki-moon is the last person to push for reforms.
Jiyoung Song is a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.