President Ban Ki-moon? U.N. Secretary-General Pivots Back to Asia.

Ban Ki-moon says he is not interested in running for the South Korean presidency. The polls say he is the front-runner.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 23: South Korean singer Psy (R), whose real name is Park Jae-sang, visits UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations on October 23, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 23: South Korean singer Psy (R), whose real name is Park Jae-sang, visits UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations on October 23, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insists he has no ambition of becoming president of South Korea when he finishes his second term as the world’s top diplomat at the end of next year. But back in Seoul, where the U.N. chief was visiting last week, Ban is treated very much like a potential president in waiting.

Pollsters include him in presidential polls. Reporters scrutinize his relatives for links to possible financial mischief. The governing and opposition parties are vying for his support. Speculation grew so intense that Ban pleaded with reporters to stop asking him about political aspirations, which he insisted he doesn’t have.

“Please refrain from making guesses about me, my future political activities, or conducting polls that carry my name,” he told reporters last Tuesday. “I would appreciate the Korean public to give me an opportunity to end my term of U.N. secretary-general successfully and proudly greet you in Korea afterward and [have] a chance for me to feel rewarded for my work.”

But Ban’s presidential momentum is growing harder and harder to ignore.

The U.N. chief has emerged as the most popular political figure in South Korea, eclipsing all other potential successors to President Park Geun-hye, whose term ends at the close of 2017. A poll conducted by Hangil Research in October placed Ban as the front-runner, with 39.7 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him as president, surpassing other Korean hopefuls, including Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, who received only 13.5 percent.

“He is the most popular of any potential spoken or unspoken candidate for president,” said Katharine Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “We’re talking about more than three times the next in line. That is huge in Korea.” In a testament to his rock-star status, Moon said, Ban is being actively “wooed by both the ruling and opposition parties” because they want to cash in on his political cache among voters.

Interest in Ban’s political future was heightened last week as the U.N. secretary-general paid a five-day visit to his South Korean homeland — an extraordinarily long visit to one country for a standing U.N. chief. The trip, which highlighted South Korea’s emergence as a financial and diplomatic player, was scheduled to culminate in a visit to the Kaesong industrial park, a jointly run business center that sits on the North Korean side of the border, just a few miles north of the Demilitarized Zone.

That would have been the first visit to North Korea by a sitting U.N. secretary-general since Boutros Boutros-Ghali traveled to Pyongyang in 1993 to meet Kim Il Sung. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim visited Pyongyang twice, once in 1979 and again in 1981. But Ban’s long-standing hope of securing a visit to Pyongyang never materialized. On Wednesday, North Korea abruptly canceled Ban’s visit after Ban criticized the North’s recent missile test.

The visit to the region comes at a particularly tense period in the United States’ and South Korea’s relations with North Korea. Last week, North Korea said it had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, a key step toward building a nuclear missile; that claim was rejected by Washington.

In a visit to Seoul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cited reports of “grisly” crimes by Kim Jong Un’s government and lambasted the North Korean leader for showing a “flagrant disregard for international law.”

Still, Ban’s outreach to Pyongyang has almost certainly burnished his reputation as an international statesman who has used his influence to resolve a crisis that affects all Koreans.

If he decided to run, he would not be the first U.N. secretary-general to go on to lead his country after leaving Turtle Bay. Waldheim, the controversial secretary-general who concealed his links to a Nazi unit responsible for war crimes, went on to become president of Austria from 1986 to 1992. Ban, who served as South Korea’s envoy to Austria, befriended Waldheim. In 1995, the United Nations’ Peruvian secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, ran unsuccessfully against Alberto Fujimori. But others have used their U.N. posts as a springboard for higher office. The United States’ former U.N. ambassador, George H.W. Bush, went on to become president of the United States.

The conflict with North Korea is deeply personal for the U.N. chief. Ban’s family was displaced when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, starting the Korean War. The conflict left Ban’s family destitute, surviving on handouts from the United States.

Since his earliest days at the helm of the United Nations, Ban has harbored ambitions of reconciling the feuding Koreas. In February 2010, he sent two of his most trusted envoys to Pyongyang in search of a diplomatic opening with then-leader Kim Jong Il. Last September, Ban met with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong in New York. There was speculation that Ban might meet with North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, at a World War II commemoration earlier this month in Moscow, but the North Korean leader didn’t show. Nevertheless, Ban held lengthy discussions with Kim Yong Nam, the president of Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

The outreach has generated little enthusiasm from Washington, which has little faith in the U.N.’s ability to contain one of the world’s most intractable dictators and a man who has repeatedly threatened the United States and its allies with his country’s nuclear arsenal.

“The United States has traditionally been less than enthusiastic about personal involvement on the part of U.N. secretary-generals. We view them as servants of the U.N. Security Council and haven’t really encouraged their initiative-taking,” said Stephen Bosworth, chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, who served as U.S. President Barack Obama’s special representative on North Korea policy from 2009 to 2011. “I think that is pretty much true in the case of Ban. I would be surprised if there is any momentum behind him on this either from the United States or from Seoul.”

Ban is a rare conciliatory force in South Korea, a career diplomat who was most closely identified with the country’s conservative party, but who served as foreign minister under one of the country’s most progressive administrations. The intense interest in Ban’s political future reflects the fact that South Korea’s current leader, Park, is required to step down and that there is no obvious successor in the governing conservative party or a formidable candidate in the opposition.

Ban’s pedigree could inject an intriguing ingredient into South Korea’s polarized political scene, said Victor Cha, the director of Asia studies at Georgetown University, who managed the White House’s East Asia policy under former President George W. Bush. He could be a “unifying figure in Korean politics,” which he characterized as “truly a blood sport.” But Cha questioned whether Ban would want to jeopardize his reputation as the “statesman of the world” by diving into what Cha called the “cesspool of Korean politics.”

During Ban’s visit to South Korea, he was drawn into a metastasizing corruption scandal there that has spread to a longtime associate and members of his own family.

The troubles began in April, when a South Korean construction tycoon under investigation for allegedly engaging in corrupt deals during Lee Myung-bak’s administration hanged himself from a tree on Mount Bukhansan, a popular destination for hikers that overlooks Seoul. Before his apparent suicide, Sung Wan-jong, who claimed he was the target of a political witch hunt, accused senior members of Park’s inner circle — including Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo — of having accepted his bribes. Lee, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned in April over the scandal.

The South Korean press has focused on Ban’s relationship with Sung, who once employed Ban’s younger brother. There were reports in the South Korean press indicating that Sung was quietly leading a stealth presidential campaign on Ban’s behalf, a claim Ban has denied. Sung’s son told a South Korean television broadcaster, “My father and Ban were close.… They met every time Ban traveled back to Korea.”

Ban’s nephew Bahn “Dennis” Joo-hyun, a New York-based executive with the real estate firm Colliers International, has also come under scrutiny from the press for his role in a deal to sell a high-rise building in Hanoi.

A Korean broadcaster, JTBC, and its newspaper affiliate, Korea JoongAng Daily, have run a series of article detailing the allegations, including a claim by unidentified sources that Bahn improperly misrepresented a Qatari investors intention to purchase the property.

Bahn said the allegations “are far from the truth” and that he is not the target of any official investigation.

“There is only one Korean press [outfit] reporting this — a small cable news TV channel,” he said. “None of the major TV news channels or newspaper agencies are reporting this.”

A spokesperson for Colliers declined to discuss the allegations. “As policy, we do not comment on specifics pertaining to client work as our role in real estate advisement involves highly confidential information,” according to a statement from Colliers provided by Margaret Meluzio, who manages public relations for the company.

“I’ve seen reports having to do with my nephew,” Ban told reporters in Seoul last week. “Regardless of whether it’s true or not, I feel quite ashamed that a scandal like this has surfaced and caused controversy.”

Ban said he has “never known and never took part” in his nephew’s business dealings, adding, “I’d like to tell you clearly this has nothing to do with me.”

If Ban does decide to run, the controversy could exact a political cost.

South Korea is not like the United States, where the activities of presidential relatives have little impact on major candidacies, said Michael Green, a former White House specialist who has worked with Ban in the past. “This will deflate his reputation.”

But Moon, the Wellesley College political science professor, said that support for Ban in South Korea is strong enough that he would likely weather the political storm.

Ban said the allegations are interfering with the important work he is carrying out on behalf of the international community, which “expects a lot from me.”

“Such unnecessary and incorrect allegations or rumors cause inconvenience to my work as secretary-general,” he said at the same Seoul news conference. “So I’d like to ask you to refrain from doing that.”

Ban insisted that he has “not paid attention to Korean domestic politics for a single moment” during his eight and a half years at the United Nations.

“I didn’t have time and energy for that. I’ve never once discussed Korean politics with anyone, including Mr. Sung,” he added, noting that he felt “highly regretful that he ended his life so tragically by taking such [an] extreme measure and would like to offer our warm regards to his family, although it’s late.”

Photo credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

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

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