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.
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."
To critics, a more efficient Foreign Ministry has translated into bureaucrats rolling over to accommodate a foreign policy that has loosened the foundations of the country's alliances with China, Japan and the U.S.
"South Korea's international relationships have declined under Roh, and Ban has done nothing to distinguish himself as foreign minister," said Peter Beck of the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "He has stayed in the shadow of an out-of-control president and tried to clean up his messes."
Diplomacy was a lofty ambition for a kid from a poor family in the city of Chungju. But Ban said that growing up in a country created and protected by the U.N. gave him a special respect for the world body.
Ban received a degree in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970 and embarked on a career in the Foreign Ministry that has included two postings at the U.S. Embassy in Washington, a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School in 1985, and a stint at the U.N. as the General Assembly president's chief of staff in 2001.
Yoon said his friend had been considering a run at the secretary-general's office since his 2001 posting. The move to New York revived Ban's career, friends say, and he began cultivating allies to help him pursue the top job, slated to go to an Asian candidate.
Ban, who raised his profile during talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions, emerged as the consensus figure in the race to replace Annan. He made ministerial visits to the country of every Security Council member between February and September. China did not object to him, and Ban was liked in Washington, as he pushed for sending South Korean troops to Iraq, a highly unpopular decision at home.
His support from the Bush administration has made some wary that he will not be able to stand up to Washington. In several speeches, audiences bristled when he declared that "the U.S. is the most important member state of the U.N."
But the other part of his message, he said, is that the U.S. should value the world body more. "The U.N. stands for what the U.S. is also seeking: democracy, market economies, peace and stability, prosperity and development," he said.
Ban's nonconfrontational strategy on North Korea is at odds with the Bush administration's approach. He also embraces the International Criminal Court, which the U.S. opposes. And if he is beholden to Washington, he is equally obliged to Beijing and will have to balance pressures between the two.
Still, it is clear that the "make no enemies" persona that probably won Ban the job is not an act.
"He is always smiling and never says no," Yoon said. "But that does not mean he has no principles of his own. He does have a core value system, a belief in human rights and that we share the common cause of building a civilized world."
Farley reported from the United Nations and Wallace from Seoul.