By EDITH M. LEDERER
The Associated Press
Thursday, September 28, 2006; 9:57 AM
UNITED NATIONS -- The South Korean front-runner to replace Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general rejected criticism that he is too weak for the job, insisting he has the "inner strength" needed to lead the world body.
Seven candidates will be vying for the council's support in an informal poll Thursday. Ban Ki-Moon, who has been South Korea's foreign minister for more than 2 1/2 years, said he hopes to get support from all 15 Security Council nations.
"Sometimes I may look like a weak, soft leadership," Ban said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. "You may look at me as a soft person, but I have inner strength. This is what normally people from the outside world would have some difficulty in seeing _ people from Asia particularly, when we regard humility, a humbleness, as a very important virtue."
Seven candidates will be vying for the council's support on Thursday, two for the first time _ former Afghan finance minister Ashraf Ghani and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
In the last straw poll, where council members chose "encourage," "discourage" or "no opinion," Ban came out on top. Fourteen countries encouraged him to remain in the race, and one discouraged him.
"I regard it as confirmation of widespread confidence in me and in the visions that I laid out for the future of the United Nations, including the United Nations' reform process," Ban said. "I accept this result with humility. At the same time, I feel a deep sense of responsibility.
India's candidate, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Public Information Shashi Tharoor, came second followed by Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, Jordan's U.N. Ambassador Prince Zeid al Hussein, and former U.N. disarmament chief Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka.
Tharoor said Tuesday that the race "could well be all over or close to it" if Ban again does well in Thursday's informal poll. Despite Ban's strong support, Tharoor said he believed the race was far from over.
"I'm still second in the fray and that counts for something because ultimately I think many members of the council would like to see a choice," Tharoor said.
Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council recommends a candidate to the 192-member U.N. General Assembly, which has traditionally approved that person with little debate.
Most nations now generally accept that the next secretary-general should come from Asia because of an unwritten rule that the post rotate by region.
Thursday's poll will be followed by a more telling vote on Monday. At that time, council ambassadors will use colored ballots to indicate whether a candidate is opposed or supported by one of the five veto-wielding members of the council.
A negative vote from one of the five permanent members _ Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States _ would all but doom the candidate's chances.
Asked why he was the front-runner, Ban cited his almost four decades as a diplomat "dealing with many complex, difficult, security-related issues," including negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program and with members of the General Assembly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"I can also offer the collective wisdom and experience of the Republic of Korea, which has risen from the devastation of war to the 11th-largest world economy, and also full-fledged democracy from authoritarian military rule," he said.
Ban has said he would focus on being the world's top diplomat and leave the U.N.'s day-to-day operations primarily to a deputy, though he stressed "I will be fully responsible."
"The secretary-general should be a person who combines both capabilities as chief administrative officer and also as a political leader who can engage himself or herself in resolving many regional conflicts and global issues," he said.
While Ban is certainly far ahead in the race, some diplomatic observers have expressed concern that he is not forceful enough, and that if elected he would be a weak secretary-general at a time that the United Nations needs a strong chief.
Ban said he had heard similar comments but he stressed that his jobs over the last 20 years, including foreign minister and national security adviser for two presidents, attest to his capabilities.
Over the last three years, Ban said he has played a coordinating role in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, dealing with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and some European countries.
Ban said he has gained "a very good reputation" combining humility with "a strong commitment of responsibility for the public good."
"So I'm confident that I can be sometimes able to demonstrate strong leadership, but at the same time try to understand the challenges with a full sense of sympathy (for) the problems of others," he said. "I try to care for other people first before myself. That's the way I have been living my entire life."
Associated Press Writer Paul Alexander contributed to this report.