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New UN Secretary-General Vows to Work for Reform at World Body

The United Nations General Assembly has approved Ban Ki-moon of South Korea as the next U.N. secretary-general -- the eighth in the world body's 60-year history. Ban will take over when Kofi Annan steps down on December 31.

On Monday, the 15 UN Security Council members chose Ban Ki-moon of South Korea as secretary-general by acclamation. The 192 members of the General Assembly met Friday to approve the appointment. Ban has said he'll work during his five-year term to reform the U.N.

"The United Nations needs to be changed to address more effectively and efficiently in addressing all the challenges and agendas which we are now facing,” he told reporters during his campaign for the post. “I am committed, should I be elected secretary-general, to bring strength, new force and new fresh ideas to make this global body more relevant."

The 62-year-old Ban Ki-moon is a career diplomat who has also served as South Korea's national security advisor, and in its mission to the U.N. Some observers question whether he will make an inspiring or forceful U.N. chief, like his predecessor Kofi Annan. Korea expert and retired U.S. diplomat David Straub has met Ban many times, and believes he will prove also to be a leader:

"He's an extraordinarily articulate, disciplined, decent man,” Straub said in an interview. “I believe he is also a man of strong principles. He's very interested in humanitarian issues. He served in India as a young diplomat and became interested in developmental issues. One of the things he's talked about most during his campaign for secretary-general of the U.N. is the situation in Darfur and other humanitarian emergencies."

Lee Shin-wha, a politics professor at Korea University, says it's especially meaningful that the next U.N. secretary-general comes from the divided Korean peninsula. “I think that will be a great opportunity for the international community to start to think about how we can make a real peace, not only divided nations and regional levels, but also at the global level,” she told a reporter in Seoul.

The U.N. Security Council approval coincided with North Korea's announcement that it had carried out a nuclear test. Speaking in Seoul, Ban Ki-moon called the move an act of provocation in the face of concerted warnings from the international community -- and said that peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear issue would be a priority for him as U.N. chief. David Straub says Ban is well equipped to help settle the problem -- even though North Korea can hardly be pleased by his selection:

"It will probably be difficult for Mr. Ban to meet with the North Koreans as secretary-general, because of the embarrassment they presumably feel,” he said. “On the other hand, the secretary-general's most important role in all this probably will be behind the scenes: working with the members of the Security Council, talking with the international leaders of the international community. In that sense, I think it's very useful to have him as the secretary-general because there are few people in the world who know as much not only about the U.N. system, but especially about the North Korean problem. And he can help educate other leaders. Since he's a pragmatic and responsible person, he can also urge them to adopt the right approaches to dealing with North Korea."

Ban Ki-moon's term as U.N. secretary-general will begin January 1, and may be extended another five years. Some reports say he will remain as South Korean foreign minister until soon before he is installed at the U.N. His two and a half month transition is the longest in U.N. history.