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UN: The Importance Of Being Korean

Ban Ki-moon, the probable next UN secretary-general (file photo) (epa) Is it an advantage that in the midst of a crisis over North Korea's nuclear program that the next head of the UN is almost certain to be a Korean?

NEW YORK, October 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- North Korea catapulted itself to the top of the agenda of the international community by announcing at the start of this week that it has tested a nuclear weapon. By the end of this week, one of the figures most critical in shaping the international community's response -- the new head of the United Nations -- will be chosen, and he is almost certain to be a Korean, South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. So will Ban be uniquely well-placed -- as a Korean -- to deal with Pyongyang? Or could his South Korean nationality be a liability?

During his campaign for the post, Ban certainly stressed that North Korea would be one of his priorities and saying that one of his first trips after his appointment would be to Pyongyang.

As a Korean Ban Ki-moon may find "some kind of conciliatory method that the other people cannot really kind of think of."

Ja-Hyun Kim Haboush the director of the Center For Korean Research at Columbia University in the United States, said shortly after the Security Council nominated Ban for the position of secretary-general that some might hope that, as a Korean, Ban Ki-moon may find "some kind of conciliatory method that the other people cannot really kind of think of."

Ian Williams, the UN correspondent for "The Nation" magazine and editor of "The Congressional Quarterly Guide to the UN," believes "it's quite possible that he'll be in a better position to talk to the North Koreans and appeal to their sense of nationalism that ‘Here's a Korean holding this position and you can now seriously do business.'"

However, "the question is, of course, whether he can persuade Washington to do business with North Korea."

That is a problem also cited by Kim Haboush, who says she is not sure whether Ban will be able to produce a breakthrough in the form, for instance, of arranging direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington. The United States has long refused to talk bilaterally with North Korea.

The Problem With Being Korean

Some experts worry that North Korea may in fact be unhappy at Ban's probable appointment as the next head of the UN -- and that one of the aims of the nuclear test on October 9 was to demonstrate its disapproval.

North Korea certainly has an unhappy relationship with the United Nations itself, maintaining that it was precisely because of a UN-sanctioned military intervention that Korea was divided in 1953.

Charles Armstrong, an expert on modern Korean history at Columbia University, believes Ban faces a tricky balancing act and that "he must be very careful not to take a position that represents the South Korean view, or the South Korean government's view of the situation."

South Koreans themselves are very excited by Ban's nomination, but not so much because a Korean would occupy the top job in the world's largest international organization, but because, in Kim Haboush's words, that "at long last that they are regarded as people who are capable of dealing with world problems."

In the shape of North Korea, he will certainly face his toughest challenge, a problem that will test his reputation as a skillful diplomat capable of getting along with everybody.