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The Quiet Korean: Ban Ki-moon Opens Up


Ban Ki-moon
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, receiving a statuette of a goldfinch, Iowa's state bird, at Drake University, where he spoke on Oct. 19, 2012. With him is David Maxwell, Drake's president. DRAKE UNIVERSITY

Over the last few years, an American journalist and academic, Tom Plate, has been writing a series of books called “Giants of Asia.” Lee Kuan Yew, the brilliant if steely founder of modern Singapore, was first. Then came Mahathir Mohamad, the former long-serving but short-tempered prime minister of Malaysia, and Thaksin Shinawatra, a deposed Thai leader still wandering in exile with allegations of corruption hanging over his head.

Now it is Ban Ki-moon’s turn in Plate’s latest book, “What the United Nations Is Really Like: The View From the Top.” The formats of all the “Giants” books are similar. They are built almost entirely on taped conversations, with copious interjections, prodding questions and digressions from the interviewer, as well many photos of the author. But in this case the subject is different.
What the United Nations Is Really Like
Ban is not – never was – a government leader in Asia, and certainly not a big personality on the Asian stage or a recognized global figure. Yet throughout his career in diplomacy, culminating in his service as South Korea’s foreign minister, he has probably had more intense contact with the United States than Lee, Mahathir or Thaksin. As a winner in 1962 of an American government-sponsored trip, Ban, who was 18 at the time, traveled for a month in the US, mostly on the West Coast, with other international students. Two decades later, he spent 10 months at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where, he said, he learned a lot about analytical thinking.

All this and other forays into American life helped make him the preferred candidate of President George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to replace Kofi Annan as United Nations secretary-general in 2007. Being America’s choice is not often an asset at the UN. So he toured the world with his hallmark methodical efficiency to line up enough governments besides the US to make him a near-consensus winner of the prize, leaving other Asian competitors in the dust. (The general perception was that it was “Asia’s turn” to nominate a secretary-general; his five-year term was renewed in 2011.)

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In numerous interviews with Plate that moved from the secretary-general’s residence to restaurants and clubs around New York, which the author seems to have enjoyed perhaps more than Ban, the secretary-general stressed the pride he took in his thoroughness and reliability. He knew that he was not a glittering celebrity. After his arrival, moans soon could be heard around the UN over his deeply reserved nature, inaccessibility and tendency to surround himself with Korean aides, leaving diplomats and UN staff members feeling frozen out of the secretary-general’s world.

Tom Plate, author of a book on Ban Ki-moon
Tom Plate, author of a new book on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Was it Asia that made him this way? In one of the most revealing passages in the book, Ban said this: “The first year, there were, I think, some misunderstandings about me. You know, I’m only the second Asian secretary-general after U Thant. [1961-1971] That took 36 years, so there was not much Asian thinking or Asian values appreciated within the UN system. Those people who had been working with U Thant, in his time, they have all disappeared.”

The UN, Ban said, had been taken over in the interim by “European and Latin American approaches” at odds with an Asian preference for a low-key, nonconfrontational style, marked by more hard work and less socializing. He included his predecessor in the Western camp because Annan, although a Ghanaian, had been educated in Europe and the US and worked in the UN system for 40 years. To Ban’s thinking, Annan was “from a predominantly European, Western culture.”

“But in the end, during the last four-and-a-half years,” Ban said, “I think they now understand, clearly, that Asian values are also one of the very important values, and cultures, which should be respected, and Asian countries … they’re doing well now. And that’s why people have been saying that the 21stcentury will be led by the Asia-Pacific.”

“What the United Nations Is Really Like: The View From the Top,” by Tom Plate; 981430204X

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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