Asia Pacific / Politics

U.N.'s Ban offers strongest hint yet of run at South Korean presidency

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave his strongest signal yet on Tuesday that he will seek the South Korean presidency next year as a corruption scandal that reached the highest level of government continues to roil the country.

Touting his 10 years of experience as U.N. chief, Ban said he was “willing to fully devote” himself to help South Korea in the wake of the graft scandal, which ensnared President Park Geun-hye and spurred weeks of massive protests in the capital, Seoul. Those protests ultimately forced out Park, who was impeached by the country’s National Assembly this month.

“If what I have learned, seen and felt during my 10-year service as U.N. secretary-general could help advance the Republic of Korea, I am willing to fully devote myself to it,” the Yonhap news agency quoted Ban as telling South Korean reporters in New York. “Though my capacity is limited, I will not be sparing of myself if my know-how is needed to develop the country and enhance citizens’ welfare and livelihoods.”

While he has yet to throw his hat into the ring, Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, has long been rumored to have presidential ambitions. Once his term as U.N. chief is up at the end of the year, he is widely expected to begin laying the groundwork for a run at South Korea’s top office.

“I have been musing about how and where I will dedicate myself,” Ban was quoted as saying Tuesday. “I will determine (whether to run for the presidency) after I meet citizens from various walks of life and listen to their opinions. What is most important is citizens’ thoughts.”

Observers have tapped him as an odds-on favorite running on the ruling Saenuri Party ticket. Ban, who has never run for public office, is a career diplomat who served under the late President Roh Moo-hyun. Polling among other potential candidates currently has him trailing only Moon Jae-in, the former head of the main opposition Minjoo Party.

The corruption scandal that has rocked South Korea has been seen by some as hurting Ban’s chances of a clean shot at the presidency after causing the ruling Saenuri Party to bleed members.

On Wednesday, a total of 31 lawmakers from the Saenuri Party announced their intention to bolt the party within the year, citing the incumbent leadership’s reluctance to embrace reforms despite the impeachment crisis. The figures include Rep. Yoo Seong-min and Rep. Kim Moo-sung, the former floor leader and the chief of Saenuri.Amid the chaos, Ban has taken the unusual step of criticizing the conservative party — likely a bid to reach out to disillusioned voters.

Commenting on the political scandal that has threatened to end Park’s presidency, Ban noted that South Koreans are frustrated and angered by the “lack of good governance” and divisions with the “system and leadership.”

“The genuine leadership … genuinely inclusive leadership comes from harmony, integration, inclusive dialogue, national cohesion and social integration. That is what I have usually thought of as the crux of the leadership,” he said.

Still, Ban has refused to rule out working with Saenuri and other parties.

“You can’t do politics all by yourself,” he said. “There should be some sort of means and a vision.”

Noting the weeks of massive anti-Park protests across the nation, Ban said he felt saddened but emphasized that the situation was a chance to make important changes.

“As those deep-rooted evils have been brought to the fore, we should get together and fix them,” he said.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court has up to six months to review whether the National Assembly’s impeachment of Park is legal. If it rules in favor of her removal, an election will follow in 60 days.

The country’s next leader is likely to face a myriad challenges ranging from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to a slowing economy and record unemployment among young South Koreans.

Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, said it was difficult to discern how Ban would deal with Pyongyang based simply on his times as foreign minister and U.N. secretary-general.

“That said, if elected, he would likely put North Korea at the top of his national security agenda and try to work with Japan on various fronts,” Kim said.

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