Under U.N. Chief, Koreans in Key Posts

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- South Korea's former ambassador to the United Nations, Choi Young-jin, will travel to Ivory Coast in the coming weeks to run the world body's peacekeeping efforts, making him the first South Korean diplomat to lead a major U.N. mission in Africa, and the latest compatriot tapped for a significant position by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The appointments have signaled South Korea's emergence as a rising power on the international diplomatic stage. But they have also fueled resentment among some U.N. employees and delegates who feel that Ban -- who became secretary general in January after serving as South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade -- is advancing the interests of his home government, which invested financially and politically in Ban's rise to the top.

"There is talk about Korean omnipresence in the [U.N.] secretariat," said Samir Sanbar, a retired Lebanese national who served as a high-ranking U.N. official for decades. "The impression is that Koreans are taking the decisions."

Ban and his aides said allegations of favoritism are wrong, and that some of the harshest criticisms smack of racism. He said that the South Korean nationals he has appointed -- including Choi, who has served as a high-ranking official in the United Nation's peacekeeping department -- are highly qualified for their positions.

"This is just unfair, just unfair, just unfair," Ban said in an interview last month, noting that South Korean nationals have been historically underrepresented at the United Nations. "I have intentionally, deliberately tried to distance myself from Korea. You may agree or not agree, but I have been troubled by the perception . . . that I have been relying too much on Koreans."

The South Korean government played a key role in promoting Ban's ascent to his job as secretary general, and the South Korean mission to the United Nations has advocated Ban's favored causes, including proposed reforms for the U.N. peacekeeping and disarmament departments. Ban, meanwhile, has used his perch to prod South Korea -- long in financial arrears -- to pay its bills on time and to lend attack helicopters for a peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

The hiring of nationals from one's own country is a delicate subject at the United Nations. The U.N. Charter requires that officials take no instructions from their governments. But, like Ban, many top U.N. officials owe their jobs to support from their governments, and they sometimes remain involved in their country's political life.

Previous U.N. chiefs -- including Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru and Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt -- brought small teams of trusted aides or clerical workers from their country's Foreign Ministry. But some officials say that Ban has gone further, contributing to boosting South Korea's presence in U.N. ranks by more than 20 percent in the past year.

"Perez de Cuellar recruited one Peruvian: That was me. I was his special assistant," said ┬┐lvaro de Soto, a former Peruvian diplomat who was given strict instructions to rebuff Peruvian job-seekers.

South Korea joined the United Nations in 1991, and it had been slow to make its presence felt. U.N. records show that South Korea, the organization's eleventh-largest financial contributor, had 54 South Korean nationals assigned to its mission six months before Ban took over the top U.N. post. By contrast, the Philippines, a much poorer country, had 759 nationals in its mission.

But South Korean membership has risen rapidly during Ban's brief tenure, to 66 staff members. Ban's most important appointment in the past year was that of Kim Won-soo, a former South Korean official who helped run Ban's election campaign for the top U.N. post. Kim is widely viewed as the second most influential U.N. official, overseeing staff appointments and helping craft Ban's political priorities.

Ban has also appointed his onetime boss, Han Seung-soo, a former South Korean foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president, to a senior panel on climate change. Other prominent South Koreans have secured positions in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Department of Information Technology.

A handful of mid-level South Korean nationals recruited from the South Korean Foreign Ministry -- and spared from competing for their jobs -- have been posted in Ban's executive office, press office and department of management. Some U.N. officials have referred to the South Koreans as Ban's "political commissars" or "embeds," saying that they undermine the U.N. chain of command.

Others said the complaints are driven by envy. "I think being from South Korea, and people have growing respect for South Korea, that's a great enhancement for the secretary general," said Donald P. Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. "If he brings along talented people who he knows very well, I think that's also a plus."

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