Turtle Bay

That’s my Motherland you’re messing with

For U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean naval vessel is more than just another international crisis. It’s personal. Ban has served as a South Korean diplomat for most of his adult life, confronting numerous North Korean attacks on his country. His own family suffered extreme hardship as a ...

Courtesy of the United Nations
Courtesy of the United Nations

For U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean naval vessel is more than just another international crisis.

It’s personal.

Ban has served as a South Korean diplomat for most of his adult life, confronting numerous North Korean attacks on his country. His own family suffered extreme hardship as a result of North Korean aggression during the Korean War.

As a young boy, Ban and his family were driven from their home by invading North Korean troops. Uprooted, the Bans were left destitute, staving off starvation with American food assistance. (Ban is the tall one in the photo above.)

"I can fully understand the current situation, and the frustration and anger felt by South Korean people and all peace-loving people around the world," Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters Monday. It is "very troubling, as the secretary general of the United Nations, and also as one of the citizens of Korea." You can understand "my feeling."

But the sinking of the South Korean ship has proven a test of Ban’s ability to act independently in dealing with an international crisis that is so close to his heart. It has also tested his mettle on an issue that has pitted his former government against China, a veto-wielding Security Council member with the power to block a second term for Ban.

So far, Ban has stuck very close to the Korean government’s position, prodding the Security Council, where China has shown reluctance to respond, to impose tough measures against North Korea. But he has also offered Beijing a concession, echoing its call for the big powers to resume stalled six-nation nuclear talks with Pyongyang. South Korea vehemently opposes any immediate call for renewed talks.

"The evidence laid out in the joint international investigation report is overwhelming and deeply troubling. I fully share the widespread condemnation of the incident," Ban said. "I am confident that the council, in fulfilling its responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, will take measures appropriate to the gravity of the situation."

Analysts say the current crisis reflects a broader shift by Ban and the Korean government away from China, which had emerged as Seoul’s chief trading partner at the time of Ban’s election as secretary-general but is increasingly viewed by Koreans as a threat to their long-term interests. As Seoul moves to reduce its trade with Pyongyang in response to the attack on the Cheonan, North Korea has been increasing its dependency on Beijing — which now supplies more than 80 percent of North Korea’s fuel needs.

"He is now putting pressure on China, something he has never done before as secretary- general," said Michael J. Green, a former White House Asia specialist under George W. Bush‘s administration. "I’m sure the Chinese didn’t anticipate this when they supported his candidacy; I think they saw him as malleable enough. He was selected at a time when the Chinese were more confident about their influence over South Korea."

Green says that China’s cautious response to the attack on the Cheonan — and President Hu Jintao‘s recent reception for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Beijing — has contributed to Korean animosity towards its powerful western neighbor.

"I think Ban is showing that he is a Korean at the end of the day," said Green. "He has spent his entire career in the Korean foreign office dealing with precisely these kind of crises with North Korea and he will, when he finishes his term as secretary-general, most likely retire in Korea to a hero’s welcome.  I’m not at all surprised he is expressing the anger felt by the majority of Koreans, including the government, towards North Korea."

U.N. specialists say the dilemma confronting the secretary-general is largely unprecedented. "Historically, I can’t think of any previous secretary-general who has had to face a situation in which his own national country was intimately connected with a major peace and security issue before the U.N. Security Council," said Colin Keating, a former New Zealand ambassador to the United Nations who heads the Security Council Report, a think tank supported by Columbia University.

Keating said that unlike a judge, the secretary-general is not expected to recuse himself from cases where there might be a conflict of interest. "Impartiality is something we no longer expect of the secretary-general. We expect the secretary-general to be more pro-active than that and take positions on issues with an appropriate degree of balance," Keating said. "I’m not sure how I would play it."

Ban himself seems to be struggling to strike the right note. "As [a] secretary-general who happens to come from the Republic of Korea, then I do not want to create any misperceptions. I want to be fair," he said. But as he recalled North Korea’s multiple previous "provocations," he said "this is very troubling for me to see what is happening in the Korean peninsula — that’s my Motherland."

Follow me on Twitter  @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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