BAN KI-MOON WAS BORN in the city of Chungju on June 13, 1944, while Korea was still suffering under occupation by Japan. A year later, the victors of World War II split the land of his birth in half, with the Soviet Union administering the part north of the 38th Parallel and the United States taking control of the southern part, including Chungju. Two weeks after Ban’s sixth birthday, a massive North Korean army under communist leader Kim Il Sung invaded the South, providing the United Nations with its first and most trying test as a force in world affairs.
Today, Ban is poised to become secretary-general of the organization that, with U.S. leadership, pushed the North’s armies back into their territory and then oversaw reconstruction of the shattered South. There are few nations where the United Nations is as widely respected, or has played as fundamental a role, as South Korea. Which is why it is fitting that a South Korean should lead the organization during what may well be another turning point.
Ban’s selection isn’t yet official, but after winning a straw-poll vote by the Security Council on Monday, he is almost certain to get the formal nod from the group next week, after which his approval by the full General Assembly should be little more than a formality. The process has been highly unusual both for its speed and lack of rancor -- which is either a positive sign or a signal of the U.N.'s approaching demise, depending on one’s outlook.
Ban is a soft-spoken, low-profile career diplomat who last year represented South Korea in the six-nation nuclear talks with North Korea and who was probably chosen because he made the fewest waves among the candidates. Being the unanimous pick of countries as divergent as the U.S., China, France and Russia requires an astonishing degree of either diplomatic skill or utter blandness. U.N.-bashers are already accusing Ban of buying votes and of being too bureaucratic to push through the reforms the organization so badly needs. Yet being a consensus-builder, a good listener and a committed multilateralist with an optimistic view of the U.N. aren’t bad qualities in a secretary-general. The firebrand approach so favored by the U.N.'s sharpest critics might sound attractive on Op-Ed pages, but it almost never accomplishes anything useful in an international forum.
The U.N. secretary-general, in the words of outgoing officeholder Kofi Annan, is “the world’s most impossible job.” Ban will have to oversee the herculean task of reforming a body that has been nearly paralyzed by corruption scandals, hard-to-resolve conflicts in such places as Darfur and Lebanon and a growing rift between rich and poor nations. Ban is no Bill Clinton -- this page’s pick for the job, who was somehow overlooked by the Security Council -- but he has the skills and experience to be a success.