S. Korean Contender for U.N. Post Has an Edge

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 28 -- The leading candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade, has at least one potential advantage over his rivals in the electoral race for the world's top diplomat:

Ban is the architect of South Korea's trade and aid policies, so he is responsible for signing trade deals and doling out foreign assistance that sometimes benefits countries with a hand in deciding his fate.

Rivals have privately grumbled that South Korea, which has the world's 11th-largest economy, has wielded its economic might to generate support for his candidacy. They cited South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's trade mission earlier this month to Greece, which holds the Security Council's presidency. The visit, the first by a South Korean leader to Greece since 1961, concluded with the signing of trade and tourism agreements.

Ban was also the first senior South Korean minister to visit Congo, another Security Council member, since that country's independence in 1960.

Ban said the insinuations are "groundless" and that he had arranged the trade mission to Greece long ago to balance a similar mission last year to Turkey, Greece's regional rival. He said the Congo trip was part of a process of reaching out to countries that South Korea has neglected over the years. Like most of the candidates, he has tried to visit all the Security Council nations.

"As front-runner, I know that I can become a target of this very scrutinizing process," he said in an interview Wednesday night. "I am a man of integrity."

The political sniping that has accompanied Ban's success in the race marks a departure from previous contests for the top U.N. job, which were traditionally conducted behind closed doors.

With Annan's term expiring at year's end, a field of seven candidates has mounted a global political campaign featuring televised debates, newspaper op-ed pieces and appearances at world and regional summits. To win, a candidate requires the support of at least nine of the 15 members of the Security Council, including its five permanent members.

Ban maintained his lead in the race Thursday when the council took its third straw poll, with 13 council members encouraging his candidacy, one discouraging it and one expressing no opinion. He was followed by Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist and U.N. civil servant (8-3-4), and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the only female candidate (7-6-2).

The council is scheduled Monday to hold a potentially decisive vote, which for the first time will reveal whether any of the five permanent members have chosen to veto any of the candidates.

Tharoor, who was urged by Annan's office to take a leave of absence from his U.N. job during the campaign to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, said it is still possible that the council might want "a two-horse or a three-horse race." But he conceded in an interview before Thursday's vote that if Ban strengthens his lead, "I guess we'll have to admit that it's pretty much over."

U.N. officials and other diplomats say that while Ban lacks charisma, he is an experienced and skillful diplomat who knows the United Nations from a stint as South Korea's ambassador there. He also speaks English and French, a prerequisite for the job.

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