PEOPLE #15: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Ban Ki-moon is the current Secretary-General of the United Nations.Before becoming Secretary-General, Ban was a career diplomat in South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the United Nations. He entered diplomatic service the year he graduated from college, accepting his first post in New Delhi. In the foreign ministry he established a reputation for modesty and competence.
Ban was the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea from January 2004 to November 2006. In February 2006 he began to campaign for the office of Secretary-General. Ban was initially considered to be a long shot for the office. As foreign minister of Korea, however, he was able to travel to all of the countries that were members of the United Nations Security Council, a manoeuvre that turned him into the campaign’s front runner.
On 13 October 2006, he was elected to be the eighth Secretary-General by the United Nations General Assembly. On 1 January 2007, he succeeded Kofi Annan, and passed several major reforms regarding peacekeeping and UN employment practices. Diplomatically, Ban has taken particularly strong views on global warming, pressing the issue repeatedly with former U.S. President George W. Bush, and Darfur, where he helped persuade Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to allow peacekeeping troops to enter Sudan. 

Ban was born in Eumseong in a small farming village in North Chungcheong, in 1944, at the end of Japanese rule of Korea. When he was three, his family moved to the nearby town of Chungju, where he was raised.During Ban’s childhood, his father had a warehouse business, but the warehouse went bankrupt and the family lost its middle-class standard of living.

When Ban was six, his family fled to a remote mountainside for the duration of the Korean War. After the war, his family returned to Chungju. Ban has mentioned meeting U.S. military troops at this time.In secondary school Ban became a star pupil, particularly in his studies of English. According to local stories, Ban would regularly walk 6 miles (9.7 km) to a fertilizer plant to practice English with the factory’s American advisors.In 1952, he was selected by his class to address a message to then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, but it is unknown if the message was ever sent. In 1962, Ban won an essay contest sponsored by the Red Cross and earned a trip to the United States where he lived in San Francisco with a host family for several months. As part of the trip, Ban met U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When asked by a journalist at the meeting what Ban wanted to be when he grew up, he said “I want to become a diplomat.”
Ban received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Seoul National University in 1970, and earned a Master of Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1985. At Harvard, he studied under Joseph Nye who remarked that Ban had “a rare combination of analytic clarity, humility and perseverance.” Ban was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) by the University of Malta on 22 April 2009. After his election as Secretary-General, Ban became an icon in his hometown, where his extended family still resides. Over 50,000 gathered in a soccer stadium in Chungju for celebration of the result. In the months after his appointment, thousands of practitioners of feng shui went to his village to determine how it produced such an important person.

Ban himself is not a member of any church or religious group and has declined to expound his beliefs: “Now, as Secretary-General, it will not be appropriate at this time to talk about my own belief in any particular religion or God. So maybe we will have some other time to talk about personal matters.” His mother is reportedly Buddhist. In the Korean Foreign Ministry his nickname was Ban-jusa, meaning “the Bureaucrat” or “the administrative clerk.” The name was used as both positive and negative: complimenting Ban’s attention to detail and administrative skill while deriding what was seen as a lack of charisma and subservience to his superiors.
The Korean press corps calls him “the slippery eel” for his ability to dodge questions. His demeanor has also been described as a “Confucian approach.”Ban’s work ethic is well documented. His schedule is reportedly broken into five-minute blocks; Ban claims to sleep for only five hours a night and never to have been late for work. During the nearly three years he was foreign minister for South Korea the only vacation he took was for his daughter’s wedding.

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