Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea is being sworn in Thursday as the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations. He officially takes over at midnight, January first, when Kofi Annan of Ghana steps down after 10 years in the top U.N. job. VOA's correspondent at the U.N., Peter Heinlein, reports Mr. Ban is promising "fresh winds" of change at the world body.
Ban Ki-Moon comes to the United Nations with a reputation as a mild-mannered and soft-spoken diplomat with an easy smile. He rose through the ranks to become South Korea's foreign minister during a 35-year career in which he was known for humility and modesty.
But those who know him say the 62-year old Mr. Ban's soft approach should not be taken as a sign of weakness.
He has been careful not to reveal much in advance about his plans for running the world body. But he has served notice that change is in the air.
The departing U.S. Ambassador John Bolton often complained about what he called a "culture of inaction" within the U.N. bureaucracy, or secretariat. Mr. Ban told reporters recently that shaking up the secretariat would be among his first priorities. "I'll try to change the culture where the United Nations has been operating. We need to bring a new, fresh wind to the secretariat, to bring management reforms to make the secretariat staff working on the professionalism, working on the highest level of integrity," he said.
Mr. Ban also signaled his intention to make the U.N. a quieter, more efficient organization. Among the sharpest criticisms of Kofi Annan was that he articulated grand visions and set impossibly high goals that led inevitably to unfulfilled expectations.
In his acceptance speech in October, Mr. Ban noted that the U.N. is overstretched for its limited resources. He said the organization must promise less and deliver more. "We should be more modest in our words, but not in performance. The true measure of success for the U.N. is not how much we promise, but how much we deliver for those who need us most," he said.
Veteran U.N. watcher and Columbia University Professor Edward Luck has known the incoming secretary-general for years, since Mr. Ban's days working at the South Korean mission to the U.N., and later in the office of the General Assembly president.
Professor Luck acknowledges Mr. Ban has a tough act to follow in Kofi Annan, who proposed a variety of international norms that sought to expand the world body's authority in many areas. He says Mr. Ban's strengths as a day-to-day administrator complement those of Mr. Annan. "It's now historically the time where the U.N. needs to build a stronger foundation. We have gone through a major period of building norms, putting the U.N. into new areas, a lot of conceptual advances in terms of the U.N. doctrine under Kofi Annan, but now the organization in many ways has to prove itself, and that falls to Ban Ki-Moon," he said.
Another challenge Mr. Ban faces is rebuilding trust among member states. Disagreements over reform issues, such as enlarging the U.N.'s most powerful body, the Security Council, have led to what the incoming secretary-general called "worrisome divisiveness".
Professor Luck says the job will test Mr. Ban's proven skills as a healer and a mediator. "Particularly the expansion of the Security Council over the last years has been very, very controversial and divisive among the member states, so there has to be a lot of healing there… and it's not unusual that they pick someone who's known as being a bit more of a quiet behind-the-scenes worker as Ban Ki-Moon has been, someone who has a strong reputation as a mediator and conciliator, someone who's known more as a listener than a preacher," he said.
Mr. Ban describes himself as an optimist. He graduated from the prestigious Seoul National University with a degree in international relations. Later, he earned a Masters degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
And he credits President Kennedy with helping to awaken his interest in the world outside the Korean peninsula.
His first visit to the United States in 1962 was a prize for winning an English competition sponsored by the American Red Cross. That visit included a trip to the White House. The moment is captured in a black-and-white photo showing an 18-year old Ban Ki-Moon among a group of foreign students, smiling as President Kennedy spoke.