Ban Ki-moon at Davos 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Half

Opinion

The return of former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 12 was one of the most closely watched events in recent memory, perhaps barring only the political scandal that has afflicted the impeached president Park Geun-hye. When Ban arrived, hundreds of his supporters greeted him rapturously at the airport. The beleaguered conservatives were quick to claim him as their own, beseeching him to represent them in this year’s presidential election. The progressives eyed him warily as an obstacle to their electoral victory. Everywhere he went, he was the news.

So when Ban announced at a press conference on Feb. 1 that he would not pursue the presidency, it was — there is no other way to say it — a bombshell. He said, “I will discard my pure intention to spearhead a political transition and achieve national unity.”

It was an astounding, anticlimactic development given his much-discussed non-campaign. (Ban never officially declared his candidacy.) Ban has long been considered the frontrunner to succeed Park. And the presidential election will take place this year whether she is formally unseated or not. While his support has eroded, Ban was still in second place, after the former Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in.

Ban blamed his decision on the “same-old partisan, selfish attitude of some.” He doesn’t see that he has proven himself to be an inept politician. Being “Mr. Half-Half” — as he is often called by detractors in a play on his surname — may be a good strategy for a diplomat, but not when trying to claim the nation’s top office.

We can at least congratulate him on demonstrating wisdom in the end.

Ban has been so blunder-prone during the last few weeks of non-campaigning that it was painful to watch him. Two days after coming back to South Korea, he travelled to his hometown to venerate his father at the latter’s grave. There, he was widely ridiculed for incorrectly performing ancestral rites, something most South Koreans are expected to know, especially if one is a senior figure trying to become the president.

Then he went to see the families of the missing Sewol passengers at Paengmok Port, near the site of the sinking. His whirlwind tour, which devolved into a media circus, included ignorant questions such as “Were they mostly high school students?” (The whole country is aware that most of the victims were high school students.) Ban’s mistakes during the Paengmok tour, highlighted by some media outlets, prompted criticisms that he was insincere and using the families only for his own political gains.

His vision for South Korea seemed contradictory. On Jan. 15 Ban reiterated the importance of installing the U.S. missile defense system because “the Korean Peninsula is in a semi-state of war.” A day later, he visited the U.N. Memorial Park in Busan and wrote in the guestbook, “As former U.N. Secretary-General, I will apply my efforts, however meagre, toward peace on the Korean Peninsula.” His contribution to LGBT rights during his tenure as a U.N. chief is widely recognized, but he told South Korean Evangelicals whose support he needs, “I didn’t encourage people to go to such gatherings, nor did I tell them to be that way. I meant that the rights all human beings should enjoy mustn’t be infringed on.”

And what about youth employment? During a lecture in Gwangju, he argued that government leaders should be held accountable for youth unemployment, and then followed that comment with this: “If there are truly no jobs, young people should at least do volunteer service and see trouble-ridden places around the world.”

The conservative establishment has been quite ready to accept such words as logical, but they didn’t always make sense to others. Sounding to be on the fence about everything may be an art in the world of diplomacy. What I saw was that he kept on contradicting himself to the point of not being able to offer a real position on most issues; the only thing I could be sure of was his presidential ambition and pro-American stance. (His other nickname in South Korea is “America’s poodle.”)

He never tried his best to combat the half-half image, calling himself a “progressive conservative.” When the electorate didn’t buy that persona, he expressed his disappointment in the media for making a big deal out of his each and every move: Journalists were the cause of his falling ratings.

Certainly, there was something unfair about how the progressive media went after Ban (which isn’t to say the conservative media are fair in treating progressive politicians; they aren’t). Once it became certain that he would run for presidency on a conservative ticket, a steady stream of negative articles started showing up in the progressive media, detailing what a terrible U.N. Secretary-General he was. After Ban came home, his simple missteps — like trying to put two 10,000 KRW bills simultaneously into a train ticket vending machine or wearing a bib while feeding an incapacitated elderly woman — were scrutinized for whole news cycles.

Ban, on his part, didn’t seem to know how to prevent, anticipate or parry such attacks. For four years he served a president whom the conservative press loved to eviscerate; for him to claim disappointment in South Korea’s cantankerous media now is a little disingenuous. It’s more likely that he lacks the instinct one needs to survive electoral politics. He also didn’t understand what voters were looking for in a new president after being so bitterly disappointed by the current one — clarity, transparency and accessibility, to name a few.

Politics is show business, as well as a messy business. Ban didn’t, or pretended not to, understand that truth. He was no presidential material but had the wits to bow out before things got much worse.

Cover Image: Ban Ki-moon at the 2009 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland (Credit: World Economic Forum, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.