http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/un-chief-to-presidential-never-was-ban-ki-moon-retires/article/484942

UN chief to presidential never-was: Ban Ki-moon retires

Posted Feb 1, 2017 by Jung Ha-Won (AFP)
Nicknamed the "slippery eel" in South Korea for his ability to dodge uncomfortable questions and controversy, former UN chief Ban Ki-moon was a seasoned diplomatic player for decades, but his short-lived presidential ambitions leave a rough end to his ...
Ban Ki-moon was UN chief from 2007 to 2016
Ban Ki-moon was UN chief from 2007 to 2016
MOLLY RILEY, AFP/File

Nicknamed the "slippery eel" in South Korea for his ability to dodge uncomfortable questions and controversy, former UN chief Ban Ki-moon was a seasoned diplomatic player for decades, but his short-lived presidential ambitions leave a rough end to his career.

Born in 1944 in the small rural village of Eumseong in Japanese-occupied Korea, Ban grew up in the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War that devastated the nation and his middle-class family.

It was during the conflict that Ban first saw the flag of the organisation he would one day lead -- on the uniforms of American soldiers handing out aid parcels to his family -- and he later described himself as a "child of the UN".

He was a bookish teenager who loved learning English -- a passion that helped him win a month-long scholarship programme to visit the US and eventually meet then-President John F. Kennedy.

Ban's first overseas trip -- extremely rare for any South Korean at the time -- deeply inspired the 17-year-old and prompted him to seek a diplomatic career, he said later.

"I remember that President Kennedy told us: 'Although governments are not getting along well, you young people can be good friends -- there are no national boundaries'," Ban told the Financial Times in 2015.

He became a diplomat about a decade later and swiftly climbed the ladder, handling issues from nuclear negotiations with North Korea to the 1997 defection of Hwang Jang-Yop, the highest-ranking northerner ever to change sides, who was once ideology tutor for then-leader Kim Jong-Il.

Ban became South Korea's foreign minister in 2004, playing a key role in the six-nation denuclearisation talks with the North and embracing Seoul's reconciliation policy with Pyongyang, dubbed "Sunshine Diplomacy".

He won the job of UN secretary general in 2006 after a low-profile but effective campaign gingerly backed by the South's government and then-President Roh Moo-Hyun.

- 'B grade' -

Ban's signature quiet demeanour drew a stark contrast to his charismatic, outspoken predecessor Kofi Annan, who won the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts over global human rights.

Critics often took issue with his weak communication skills and the New York Times even described Ban's tenure as "largely invisible and underwhelming".

But he is credited with pushing several key initiatives on issues including climate change and equal rights, repeatedly urging conservative governments around the world not to discriminate over sexual orientation.

"I grew up long ago in a deeply conservative Korea... so this advocacy did not come naturally to me," he said in a speech last year. "But when I saw that lives were at stake, I had to speak up."

Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy magazine: "He would probably have been written off as a C-grade secretary general. Because of climate change, he will be remembered as a B-grade secretary general."

Ban became more outspoken after winning a second term in 2011, seeking negotiations over human rights crises in countries including Syria.

But his final year in office was also marred by controversy over the removal of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from a UN blacklist of child rights violators, with activist groups slamming the move as a "moral failure" and "blatant pandering".

Back home in South Korea, his short-lived presidential ambitions fizzled out in almost embarrassing fashion.

The country is mired in a corruption scandal involving impeached President Park Geun-Hye, who is accused of letting her secret confidante meddle in a wide range of state affairs including senior officials' nominations.

Hearts swelled in the country when Ban became the first South Korean to lead the UN, with his supporters often praising him as the "president of the world".

But in 2017 he was identified as a conservative linked with Park, and many young South Koreans dismissed the 72-year-old as an inert, indecisive figure lacking the passion and vigour needed to lead.