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Monday, October 02, 2006


U.N. front-runner touts his inner toughness

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- The South Korean foreign minister who is front-runner to become U.N. secretary-general first dreamed of becoming a diplomat when he met President Kennedy at the White House in 1962.

As an 18-year-old student, Ban Ki-moon visited Washington on a program organized by the American Red Cross. His visit with Kennedy is captured in a black-and-white photo that shows Ban, then 18, smiling among students from other countries as the president spoke.

Ban's trip long ago to the U.S. led to more than just his future vocation. His rural hometown of Chungju in central South Korea was so proud of their native son that he was honored on his departure by students at a girls' high school. One of those students -- who presented him with bamboo strainers, a traditional symbol of good luck -- became his wife.

Ban, 62, is gentle and soft-spoken and values relations with other people. Some call him a natural-born diplomat who has the ability to avoid making enemies.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan steps down from the post on December 31, and the U.N. Security Council has set an October 9 date to pick his successor. The 192-nation General Assembly must approve the council's choice -- which it has traditionally done without debate or protest.

On Monday afternoon, Ban's dream took another step forward when he cemented his position to succeed Annan, becoming the only one of six candidates to escape a veto in an informal U.N. Security Council ballot while securing 14 votes in favor.

"It is quite clear that from today's straw poll that Minister Ban Ki-moon is the candidate that the Security Council will recommend to the General Assembly," China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said.

The setting of the October 9 date offers another clear indication that Ban is a near certain choice to be the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations' 60-year history.

Ban has acknowledged criticism that he isn't strong enough for the job, but noted that as South Korea's top diplomat, he has dealt with such weighty issues as the international talks aimed at ending the nuclear standoff with neighboring North Korea.

"This has not been an easy job," Ban told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "You may look at me as a soft person, but I have inner strength. This is what normally people from the outside world would have some difficulty in seeing -- people from Asia particularly, when we regard humility, a humbleness, as a very important virtue."

His dedication to his job is well known. He has said many times that it's one of his lifelong principles to put his job ahead of private affairs.

"I'm sorry for my family, but even if I can't take care of my home, I have to do my job first," he told a class of high school students last year. "Diplomats enjoy a lot of privileges and immunities abroad and therefore, they have unlimited responsibility."

The wedding ceremony of his eldest daughter last year coincided with a conference that he had to attend. Ban briefly stepped out of the conference to attend the wedding, and then returned to the convention center. It was unclear if his family intentionally chose a wedding hall near the conference center.

Born June 13, 1944, Ban attended the country's most prestigious institute of higher learning, Seoul National University, where he received a degree in international relations in 1970. He earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1985.

Ban's first overseas posting was in India, and he also served in Austria, the United Nations and the U.S. along with other positions in Seoul before becoming foreign minister in January 2004.

His campaign for the U.N. position has been low-key, but there have been allegations in some media reports that South Korea has been seeking to buy the job by strategically giving aid to certain developing countries.

Last week, the South Korean Foreign Ministry strongly dismissed those claims, asserting that decisions on where to give aid were planned in advance of Ban's candidacy for secretary-general.

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