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Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006

Let's avoid a U.N. row with South Korea


LOS ANGELES -- I do not much mind being misquoted, especially in a good cause. That cause is the worthy candidacy of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, who is fighting for the job of U.N. secretary general. The incumbent, Kofi Annan, is finishing out his second term and must vacate later this year.

A recent column of mine lauding Ban has been widely quoted -- in Seoul, especially -- as claiming that the column actually endorsed Ban for the job.

This is not completely accurate. The column simply said what everyone in the international diplomatic community knows to be true: that of the handful of openly declared and actively running candidates to take on the thankless top U.N. job, Ban was arguably the most qualified, possibly the most liked, and certainly the most driven.

The United Nations could do much worse, but other candidates -- not yet put into play -- could emerge to wrestle the prize away. (To name just two, both from the same country: Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo and former Singaporean U.N. Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, who are top-notch talents.)

But, as I say, Ban is a good cause over which to be misquoted. In the last few weeks he has been on a globe-trotting tour, hopping from capital to capital, in search of U.N. votes for the next informal U.N. Security Council straw vote. But this hardworking diplomat -- educated at Seoul National University and at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government -- hasn't lost sight of his core job: helping maintain regional harmony. Last month he initiated talks with Shinzo Abe, soon expected to step into Junichiro Koizumi's job as prime minister of Japan, to improve the Seoul-Tokyo dialogue.

Japan-South Korea relations have been frosty under the auspices of Koizumi's visits to a shrine for Japan's war dead, and both Abe and Ban are to be commended for trying early on to behave like adults. But notwithstanding past tension, Tokyo would be the last to be seen as trying to subvert the Ban U.N. bandwagon. Japanese diplomacy excels in the art of subtlety and indirection: If Tokyo did want to ban Ban, you'd need an electron microscope to monitor the activity.

A more probable source for outright bandwagon-upset is actually Ban's boss. He is Roh Moo Hyun, the battered president of South Korea and staunch promulgator of the South's "sunshine policy" of aggressive engagement with the North. Perhaps the least enthusiastic fan of that sensible but so far hapless policy is U.S. President George W. Bush. The two are to meet Thursday in what could prove to be an explosive summit.

Recall that the first time Bush met with a South Korean president, a debacle ensued. The visitor was Kim Dae Jung, who had by then been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize for his patient diplomacy with the difficult North. Bush, then in office but a few months, treated him with jaw-dropping disrespect, practically laughing in the great statesman's face.

South Korean diplomacy will have to be at its very best -- and Bush at his most open-minded -- if another undiplomatic wrangle is to be avoided. A bunch of tough issues roil the bilateral waters, not just the Pyongyang nuclear peril problem. They include the future of the Seoul-Washington military alliance and major cost issues involving the continued U.S. military presence on the Peninsula.

The summit comes at a time when both presidents suffer from drooping popularity and are staggering to finish out their term without losing control of their own parties. Roh in particular has been gloomy and withdrawn, holed up in the Blue House as if under military siege. Similarly, the White House has become something of a house of blues as Bush's poll numbers continue to plummet -- even Karl Rove looks to have lost his magic touch.

Perhaps their mutual misery will bring the two presidents together -- allied against a largely hostile world. But it's hard to imagine that the chemistry is there. Instead, a blow-up -- though well-covered up -- over how to handle North Korea would be a better bet. But if that is averted, it will be due to the reasoned diplomacy of Roh's meticulous foreign minister Ban Ki Moon. His staff for months have been assiduously preparing for this summit.

And if the two presidents do somehow bond into best buds -- though this is very improbable -- perhaps Roh can convince Bush to endorse Ban for the U.N. job.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright Tom Plate 2006.


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