Political forces get ready for Ban’s return

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Political forces get ready for Ban’s return

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Ban Ki-moon

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will return to Korea on Jan. 12, three days earlier than expected, amid growing expectation that the 72-year-old former diplomat will declare a bid for the presidency.

Ban told Korean reporters on the way out of his residence in New York Tuesday that he would come back to Korea next week, while not confirming or denying his intention to run in the race to succeed impeached President Park Geun-hye.

Repeating an earlier remark, Seoul’s former foreign minister simply said he would strive to turn lessons he has learned during his 10-year tenure at the UN into action at home - a comment widely interpreted as an intent to run. Asked what political affiliation he planned to align himself with, Ban said it was inappropriate for him to answer at this point.

“I will make a decision after listening to the people after I return to Seoul,” said the career diplomat.

While Ban has yet to declare an official bid, his candidacy is already considered a sure thing in political circles in Korea, with his approval rating neck and neck with frontrunner Moon Jae-in of the opposition Minjoo Party.

But Ban has no direct experience with electoral politics, although he knows the political world as a career diplomat and former foreign minister.

His former colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are expected to join a campaign team if he announces a bid.

Former diplomats Kim Sook and Oh Joon, who served as Seoul’s 23rd and 24th ambassador to the UN, are certain to assist Ban in any presidential bid. Park Jun-woo, former senior presidential secretary for political affairs for Park Geun-hye and a former diplomat, also belongs to the pro-Ban group.

Oh Joon, who won public admiration for an emotional speech in 2014 before the UN Security Council on North Korea’s human rights, did not confirm or deny whether he would join Ban’s campaign if offered a job in a phone interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It’s not appropriate for me to say at this point,” he said.

Another possible group of supporters are Saenuri Party lawmakers who represent districts in Chungcheong regions, where Ban is from. Ban’s supporters in the ruling party include former Saenuri floor leader Chung Jin-suk, who represents Gongju in South Chungcheong, and Sung Il-jong, who represents South Chungcheong. These Saenuri lawmakers with ties to Chungcheong are expected to assist Ban in forming his own political group, or even a party, even if doing so requires them to defect from the Saenuri Party.

Another group likely to provide support are alums of the Lee Myung-bak government. With former President Lee having forsaken his Saenuri membership earlier this week, officials from his administration could get behind Ban as a conservative candidate. Lee Dong-kwan, spokesman at the Lee Blue House, is reportedly outlining Ban’s road map to the presidency.

“Upon his return, Ban will try to meet as many people as possible who could help his presidential bid,” said Lee Jung-hee, a professor of political science and foreign affairs at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “He is likely to reach out to those in the center of the ideological spectrum, namely lawmakers in the People’s Party and a new conservative party in the making (by Saenuri defectors).”

The professor added that Ban may distance himself from the Saenuri, as it is now heavy with hard-line Park loyalists and seen to be on the far right of the spectrum.

While Ban appears to have a lot of support, it remains to be seen whether he’s ready for the mud-slinging common in a presidential campaign.

A report claiming that Ban took $230,000 from a South Korean businessman emerged last month, which he denied.

Ban enjoys a high profile thanks to his 10 years at the largest multinational organization, but his performance there could be a campaign issue. The Western media sometimes calls him the “dullest” UN chief ever.

Foreign Policy recently described Ban as lacking “charisma, intellectual agility and creativity” and said he was a boss who “frequently erupts into fits of anger” when things did not go his way or “if he is being challenged by subordinates.”

It claimed his aides kept their heads down to avoid eye contact. Ban’s top adviser was quoted as saying he was “very weak on thinking on his feet,” in a story published Dec. 28.

Ban was singled out as the “dullest and among the worst” UN chiefs by the weekly Economist in May, which went on to criticize him for being “painfully ineloquent” and “addicted to protocol.”

Apparently reminded of critical reports on Ban, South Korean politicians wary of Ban’s rise began questioning his record at the UN. South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung, one presidential hopeful in the opposition, denounced Ban for having done nothing to ease inter-Korea tensions as the UN chief.

“On that note, I don’t think he has the vision or the political philosophy necessary to lead the country,” said An in a radio interview with TBS Wednesday.

Rebuking such criticism, former ambassador to the UN Oh Joon said such harsh words came from people disgruntled with Ban because they did not get what they wanted at the UN with Ban at the helm.

“The type of leadership Ban aspires to is hard-working and inclusive leadership,” said the former diplomat, who will start teaching at Kyung Hee University in March.

“Under inclusive leadership, one has to listen to everyone who has a stake in the matter and navigate through their demands. Such leadership invokes complaints from people or states who want their demands accepted.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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