UNITED NATIONS — When Ban Ki-moon was in high school in South Korea in 1962, he won a speech contest and was invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy. When a journalist there asked him what he wanted to do, he said, "I want to become a diplomat."
It is a story tailor-made for the man who is expected to win the U.N. Security Council's backing today to fill the world's top diplomatic post. Yet Ban, South Korea's foreign minister, made no mention of it during his eight-month campaign to become the next U.N. secretary-general. He did so only last week, when it was clear he had clinched the spot.
His reticence may come in part from a cultural reluctance to draw attention to himself, as well as a strategy to not appear too close to the United States. But it also provides an insight into the character of the quietly ambitious official who has emerged as the likely U.N. chief after years of connection-building and months of campaigning.
The 62-year-old is a self-described "harmonizer" and consensus-builder, even if that means being deliberately bland and decidedly cautious.
"He's not a guy who gets drunk at parties; I haven't seen him shoot a hole-in-one at the golf course; I haven't heard him sing karaoke. He doesn't have a lot of charisma. He compensates for that with competence," said Donald Gregg, president of the Korea Society and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 120 words Type of Material: Correction
Ban Ki-moon: In some editions of Tuesday's paper, an article in Section A about world reaction to North Korea's announced nuclear test included a paraphrase of remarks by South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, nominated to be the next secretary-general of the United Nations, in which the word "not" was omitted. It should have read: "He said he did not consider it a conflict of interest to be involved in an issue so integral to his country's well-being." Also, an article in Monday's Section A about Ban Ki-moon's nomination for the secretary-general post attributed statements to former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan. They were made by Yoon Tae-hee, a former World Bank official and a longtime friend of Ban's.
Still, diplomats at the United Nations are wondering: Is Ban a leader? And will he -- can he -- change the U.N.?
Ban is expected to win final approval this week from the General Assembly, which usually follows the Security Council's recommendation on filling the secretary-general's post.
When he moves into his new wood-paneled office on the U.N.'s 38th floor on Jan. 1, he will inherit a sprawling bureaucracy of 9,000 workers, a $5-billion budget, with aid agencies and 18 peacekeeping operations spanning the globe.
Although the world body plays a central role in quelling conflicts, preventing disease and aiding development, it is also beset by poor management, damage from scandals, and divisions that hamper progress on some issues.
"It may be an impossible and thankless job, but someone has got to do it," he said.
Many are surprised it is Ban, indisputably statesmanlike but one of the least colorful candidates. The selection process demands that the candidate be someone who has international stature, yet will not offend or challenge any of the Security Council powers. And Ban so far has displeased no one.
His Foreign Ministry colleagues nicknamed him "the Bureaucrat." The press corps there calls him "the slippery eel" for his ability to wriggle out of answering almost every question.
Soon, everyone will call him "Mr. Secretary-General," and his priority as the head of the world organization, he said, is to reform it.
"The U.N. suffers from a chronic weakness: its inability to set priorities and make choices," he said. "The U.N. needs to promise less and deliver more."
He would not say what kind of cuts he had in mind, or how he might deal with nations that are blocking reforms outlined by current Secretary-General Kofi Annan, except that all parties should be more willing to compromise.
"I think the secretary-general should really be a harmonizer, to try to demonstrate leadership by example," Ban said. "I think I can coordinate and reconcile all the divisive opinions among the member states. But at the same time, the member states should also be prepared to demonstrate maximum flexibility."
The Bush administration made clear it early in the selection process that it desired a secretary-general who would act like the chief administrative officer that the U.N. Charter called for, not a diplomatic "rock star," as Annan was dubbed. In that sense, Ban fits the bill.
But a charismatic leader humanizes the institution, said John Ruggie, a former assistant secretary-general to Annan, now at Harvard's Kennedy School for Public Policy.
"When Kofi was in his 'rock star' phase, he did a lot to attract interest in the U.N., and part of the campaign against him was in fact driven by his popularity and his ability to reach out to the public," he said. "I don't think Ban Ki-moon will have that problem. But that may work to his advantage."
Ban has not left a deep footprint at home, either. In a country where politics is polarized and raucous, Ban is a rare figure able to walk the center strip. South Korean observers say he is not part of President Roh Moo-hyun's inner circle, and has largely escaped censure from conservatives critical of the leftist Roh's foreign policy.
Ban became foreign minister in 2004 after his predecessor, Yoon Young-kwan, clashed with Roh over South Korea's U.S. policy. Ban was seen as the safe replacement who could bring calm and professionalism to a ministry in upheaval.
"People always saw him as a workaholic, industrious, very devoted diplomat," said Yoon, a longtime friend. "And he has been very effective at reforming the ministry."