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.
Ban has cultivated good relations with China, Russia and the United States as South Korea's chief negotiator in talks over the fate of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "We've always had the highest professional regard for him," said John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the world body.
In a speech Monday to a gathering of representatives from small countries, Ban underscored that fixing the United Nations' administrative culture -- a U.S. priority -- would be his "job number one." He also vowed in an interview to play a more active role in persuading North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program. "I think I can be in a much better position to play an important role," he said. Still, some U.N. observers said the election of a stalwart U.S. military and political ally could exacerbate tensions at the United Nations with developing nations, which have increasingly opposed U.S. efforts to reform the United Nations' financial practices and to reorient it to confront terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
The high costs of running a global campaign have handicapped secretary general candidates from some of the United Nations' least powerful countries, who previously fared well in races for the top U.N. post. Jayantha Dhanapala, a Sri Lankan diplomat and one of the candidates, said it has been "impossible to mount the high-cost, high-budget campaign" that a president, foreign minister or top official from a wealthier country can afford. "I can only assume that some of the candidates have been able to do more extensive travel than I've been engaged in."
Industrialized nations have a "long-standing practice" of using development and trade deals to secure voting support for their nationals in international organizations, said William R. Pace, the director of the Institute for Global Policy, which is monitoring the race.
Ban said that he has proudly guided South Korea, once a poor recipient of international assistance, into the exclusive club of aid donors committed to alleviating the plight of the world's most disadvantaged.
Last week, Ban attended a conference hosted by French President Jacques Chirac to build support for an initiative to use airline taxes to fund programs to combat AIDS and other infectious diseases.
Speaking in French, Ban said South Korea would be the first Asian country to back the initiative. "Korea feels very much proud to have become a donor country from a recipient," he said in an interview, noting that his government will double its aid to poor countries, particularly in Africa, in the next three years.
Some key council members dismissed suggestions that South Korea's trade and aid policies have influenced the race. "Our judgment of the candidates is not based on any kind of deal. It's based on the policies they follow," said Greece's ambassador, Adamantios Vassilakis.
"Politics goes on all the time," Bolton said. "And every candidate has his or her strategy, and they follow it, and everybody can evaluate that strategy" in selecting the next secretary general.
Staff researcher Rena Kirsch in Washington contributed to this report.