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New UN Chief's Friends Praise His Quiet Integrity, Intensity

Former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon has been sworn in for his new role as secretary-general of the United Nations. South Koreans are overwhelmingly proud that one of their own is at the helm the global organization. Mr. Ban's friends say the same quiet, unassuming determination that helped him succeed up to now will also serve him well as an arbiter of global peace. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul.

Ban Ki-moon's closest friends and colleagues were on hand as he prepared to depart South Korea recently for his new home at the U.N. in New York.

Among them: Limb Thok-kyu, who started the group "Ban-sa-mo", or "fans of Ban Ki-moon." Now the publisher of Diplomacy magazine in Seoul, Limb has watched Mr. Ban's career develop over the decades, since the two met 35 years ago in India.

Like most of the new secretary-general's friends, Limb describes Mr. Ban as a good-natured workaholic.

Limb says Mr. Ban is truly well liked and respected at the Foreign Ministry, where they have a saying: "be no more and no less than Ban Ki Moon."

Highlights of Mr. Ban's 31 years of diplomatic service include posts as ambassador to Austria, policy advisor to South Korea's president, as well as South Korean foreign minister.

His appointment to the U.N. top job is a source of pride for South Koreans in Seoul - and about 75 kilometers South, in his boyhood town of Chungju.

On a recent, rainy afternoon, three of Mr. Ban's childhood friends got together there to reminisce about their schooldays with their now famous classmate.

They positively beam as they watch a DVD of Mr. Ban's triumphant homecoming to Chungju in October.

Lee Soo-il says Mr. Ban was always a potential leader and became class president several times, but adds that his intensity and studiousness sometimes made him a bit of a loner.

He says Mr. Ban's nickname was "teacher" because he was so well behaved. He adds, he never saw Mr. Ban playing soccer or sports out in the yard, instead he spent all of his free time sitting at his desk, thinking.

Jung Moo-ung says even though Mr. Ban was quiet, he could be very driven and outgoing about learning new things.

He says Mr. Ban did not have too many friends back in high school, until he joined the Red Cross. Through the Red Cross he met some American priests, and Jung says Mr. Ban constantly pestered them to teach him English. Though he says it was unusual at the time to socialize with Americans, Jung says he thinks it helped develop his friend's open-mindedness.

The young Ban's persistence in learning English paid off. He later won an English language competition sponsored by the American Red Cross, and a trip to Washington D.C.

There he met President John F. Kennedy at the White House. The experience is said to have cemented his ambition to become a diplomat.

Mr. Ban worked for Han Seung-su four years ago, when Han was Seoul's ambassador to the United Nations. Han says the new U.N. secretary-general has always placed the highest priority on his public service even when he might have used his influence to his family's advantage.

"His son was drafted and sent to the special forces - the toughest army unit in Korea. And his mother said, 'You're national security advisor, can't you make your son, your only son, go to an easier unit?' And he said 'Mommy, I am here for the service of the nation, not just for the service of my family,'" recalled Han.

Now, at the helm of the United Nations, colleagues say Mr. Ban will need to draw upon all of the quiet intensity and unflappable humility that are his trademarks.

He will be trying to heal some of the world's long-standing wounds, including the six-decade divide between North and South Korea. The North's pursuit of nuclear weapons has put it at odds with the Seoul government, and the United Nations, where the Security Council has imposed sanctions on Pyongyang. Many in South Korea - and the U.N. - have expressed hope Mr. Ban will be in the perfect position to try to ease those tensions.

And healing wounds is something Mr. Ban has personal experience with.

As a young man, Mr. Ban lost his father in a hit-and-run car accident. He chose to meet the driver at fault soon after and forgave him.