In a series of seven two-hour sessions that included informal get-togethers with his wife Soon Taek, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the well-regarded former South Korean foreign minister, shares his insights exclusively with American journalist Tom Plate. The following excerpts from Plate’s most recent book, “CONVERSATIONS WITH BAN KI-MOON: What the United Nations Is Really Like: The View from the Top,” were slightly edited for The Japan Times.
Only half-jokingly, I ask him: “Are you insane still? Or were you always insane? How do you look at your sanity?”
We are on the second floor of his official residence in a Manhattan townhouse on 57th Street and York, right by the East River.
Ban laughs. So do I.
I was only half-joking. Not everyone of sound mind would or could want this job. After all, there’s no other job like secretary general of the United Nations. It practically defines the word unique. The position offers the incumbent global star status but at the same time comes with an often-hostile bureaucracy, almost 200 bosses (U.N. member states), a Western media attached like crack junkies to the microwave of instant results, and a backlog of problems almost as long and snarled as history itself, including serial international gang wars deeply embedded in national DNAs.
It’s a position in which the unexpected is expected as a normal daily occurrence. Does one day go by without something new and big and invariably ugly popping up somewhere on the globe and being presented as yet another U.N. failure?
Ban shifts his weight in his chair and stares at me for a few seconds with a wan smile: “Many people have been asking me if I am enjoying my job. My answer is that this is not about whether I enjoy it or not. This is a job that requires a sense of mission. Many people had cautioned me that this was going to be the most impossible job. I realize now, after having served, that this really is the most impossible job. And jokingly I told my member states and my friends that my mission would be to make this impossible job a mission possible … mission possible. That’s what I’m doing — whether I’m sane or insane.”
We’ve all have had jobs that threatened to drive us crazy, right?
Viewing Japan in the proper light
“Let me ask you this,” I said. “If I was foreign minister of South Korea, and I wanted to stay popular with domestic constituencies, I would not advocate that Japan became a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. But if I were a former South Korean foreign minister who became secretary general, I would maybe see the issue from a different perspective and say, well, it would probably be a good thing for Japan to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Of course, it’s probably not going to happen, but it’d be a good thing. Would that be your position?”
“My position has been a little bit different from being a South Korean. Even though I didn’t say that it’s a good idea if Japan became a permanent member, I said, I’m aware of the aspiration of the Japanese people to serve as a permanent member of the council. Japan is the No. 2 financial contributor to the U.N. Japan has been contributing to peace and security, it has been a model in human rights. I’ve been saying only something nice. That’s what I can do at this time,” Ban said.
“That’s as far as you can go.”
“Right. But, for any country, I’m not supposed to say anything. Even though it may be India, Brazil, South Africa or Germany who are so-called aspirants … they are called aspirants.”
“Right, right, because if you supported X, then country Y is going to be angry with you.”
“Oh yes, yes.”
“Right, and there’s nothing in it for you.”
“A national leader — a Barack Obama or David Cameron — they are able to say so. Because they are national governments, they can have their own preference about whatever country should become a new permanent member,” Ban said.
His position is clear. It’s not going to happen. Many things that should happen do not. This is probably one of them. Call it the real world. Or call it excessive pessimism: He assumes nothing can be done.
What’s scary is that, either way, he is probably right.
There is no good way to calibrate in quantity an injustice or unfairness. It’s as unfair for India as it’s unfair for Japan as it’s unfair for Brazil and so on. But precisely because of the tortured South Korea-Japan relationship, and the physical proximity of the two countries, fates so intertwined, Ban probably feels Japan’s pain more than anyone else’s.
He won’t be quoted to that effect, of course. But he has a huge sense of the need for South Korea to rise above the past and leave it behind. Without that, it is hard to envision the two powerful economies doing more than coexisting.
We recall that Ban worked hard as foreign minister to deepen ties with Tokyo, going back to his big effort in 2005. The late Kim Dae Jung, former South Korean president who in 2000 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his “Sunshine Policy” efforts toward North Korea, also worked for this. Ban admired “DJ,” as he was known. He admired the late Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi for agreeing with Kim in their October 1998 summit to go the extra mile to bury the issues of the wartime past and take the bilateral relationship to a higher level.
Relations with Japan may be the trickiest of all of South Korea’s foreign-relations portfolios. In domestic politics, memories of the wartime “comfort women” are never forgotten. But on the level of smart international relations, Seoul needs good relations with Tokyo, which is also a U.S. ally, and a counterweight to North Korea, if not also in theory, to China — should that nearby Goliath turn ugly.
Ban is not afraid to raise the apology issue over Japan’s wartime behavior, believed in Asia to be insufficiently atoned for. But unlike many Korean politicians he’s not of the view that the Japanese must bow and scrape every other day to make for fruitful relations.
“During my visit to Japan in 2010 — that marked the 100th year of the Japanese annexation of Korea — I talked to very senior Japanese government officials, to say that I think Japan should take a genuinely sincere attitude toward the Korean people on this occasion; that while we should not talk too much about the past, the best way of putting the past behind us is to look forward to the future for another 100 years, so that then they should express their very sincere apology by the prime minster, by the government. And that’s what they did, that’s what they did.”
Ban hopes that all of Asia will stop abusing the apology card.
“At the same time, the Korean government itself must negotiate [in good faith] with the Japanese. As a South Korean citizen but also in my capacity as secretary general, I want to see a very harmonious, constructive and forward-looking relationship between Japan and Korea, one that helps peace and stability in Northeast Asia. That’s what the U.N. secretary general wants.”
Honoring the ‘hibakusha’
In August 2010, Ban became the first U.N. secretary general to attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Service.
“It was the most profoundly moving experience. Meeting with survivors who are called hibakusha — they are called the hibakusha in Japanese — really made me very saddened and moved, but at the same time I was much encouraged to see their fortitude and courage. I had never experienced this kind of thing, and I was not there to talk about who did what during the war.”
Ban accepts that political cynicism is as widespread in Asia as anywhere.
“The most important thing in being there was to demonstrate again my commitment, to draw attention to the fact that we still have a world full of nuclear weapons. I really wanted to help those survivors whose time is very limited now … they are mostly over 75 years old, 80 and 85 years old even. During their limited time, if they could see a world without any fear of nuclear weapons … that was my hope. So I decided to go. Nobody recommended it to me, and I knew that there were sensitivities on the part of some other nuclear-weapon states, particularly in the American government. But I think my visit there seemed to have encouraged the U.S., Great Britain and France to send their special envoys for the first time. That created momentum for them to change their position [of nonparticipation]. I feel a sense of achievement and pride about this. The most important thing in being there [the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Service] was to demonstrate again my commitment, to draw attention to the fact that we still have a world full of nuclear weapons.”
The trip served a second purpose. As a South Korean diplomat, Ban feels it his moral obligation as foreign minister and now as U.N. secretary general to accord Japan respect. Rather than harp on the war crimes and compensation issues, as do many Korean politicians, irresponsibly playing what the Japanese understandably regard as the “apology card,” Ban goes to the Hiroshima peace memorial observance.
I flash back to a meeting in 2005, when he was foreign minister. This was at the gorgeous Chosun Hotel in downtown Seoul. I say to him: “I remember your comment on the subject of East Asian diplomacy the first time we met. You said that a South Korean foreign minister needs to rise above the region’s pettiness. And so it is incumbent on Japan and South Korea to be adults and to work through problems, and that as foreign minister you would have an open-door policy toward your counterpart in Tokyo. You said you knew that if you traveled there on a diplomatic mission [in 2005] you would be welcomed with open arms by the Japanese foreign minister. And I remember that two weeks later you gave a speech like that, and I wrote a column about it and it ran on the Op-Ed page of The Japan Times and I said it was a perfect example of good diplomacy.”
Ban smiles. He remembers everything he deems important. Sometimes people who talk less save some interior space to remember more.
The role of the happy auctioneer
There is puckishness to his personality that has escaped the media’s coverage of only the second Asian secretary general in the U.N.’s history.
A good example is that time he once played a little trick on Tokyo and Seoul for the benefit of the Haitian relief effort after the terrible Caribbean earthquake.
The details come to us courtesy of South Korean Ambassador Park In kook. He knows Ban well from their long career run as foreign service officers. It goes back to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that almost tipped this ill-starred island country into the Caribbean for good. The casualties were horrendous but the international relief effort much less so.
Ban, by this time, had firmly established his parachute-into- Mother-Nature’s-latest-disaster reputation: “You have a disaster? Watch out! Here comes BKM on the next available flight!”
And to Haiti he flew, on one occasion with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who for a time practically made Haiti his personally adopted disaster area.
For Ban, though, fundraising for special needs has become a core part of the job, and that means, like a college president or the head of a nonprofit, you work the phones. So from his secret study on the third floor of his residence at night, he telephones Lee Myung Bak in Seoul, where it is morning — as he is dialing long distance for dollars.
“MB,” as he is often called, was the then incumbent president of the formally named Republic of Korea. On the first pitch the SG elicits an immediate pledge of a mere $1 million. At first, the gracious Ban says nothing more than a warm thank you, but then the puckish Ban kicks in, so before hanging up, the secretary general casually mentions that the Japanese have already pledged a cool $5 million for Haiti relief.
Well, by kimchi-golly! No hotblooded South Korean politician can permit South Korea to be topped like that, so in the flash of seconds Seoul is good for another $4 million.
Whereupon Ban then shamelessly dials the prime minister in Tokyo and says, Guess what? MB just kicked in $5 million for Haitian relief. So what is the Japanese prime minister to say? After all, Japan is a richer country than South Korea and it can’t just give only as much as the Koreans …
Then Ban calls Seoul back and says, Guess what? Tokyo is up to $10 million, you got anything left?
I am back to the second-floor reception room with the secretary general and I relate Ambassador Park’s story and Ban’s face brightens greatly and he laughs: “Oh yes, that’s what I’ve been doing!”
“You do little things like that every week?”
Oh, sometimes, he suggests.
“But that’s not been in the press, right?”
“Oh, no, no, no. I don’t want to make these things into press stories,” Ban said.
And he sometimes wonders why he has had an image problem with the media!
By the way, South Korea wound up pledging $10 million, but Japan gave $70 million.
Thomas Gordon Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. His most recent book, titled “CONVERSATIONS WITH BAN KI-MOON” (Marshall Cavendish Asia, International), is the fourth volume of his “Giants of Asia” series. Subjects of the first three books were Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.