] The return of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has brought him closer to his much anticipated presidential bid, signaling a tough few months for his potential rivals.
It also means a whole new political ordeal for the 72-year-old former diplomat who now enters domestic politics for the first time as a rookie in the electoral game.
Ban’s greatest strength is undoubtedly the public’s recognition of his prestigious career as the first-ever South Korean national not only to take UN’s top post, but to have served in it for two consecutive terms.
Also, his overseas position has largely kept him away from the political commotion here, particularly the extensive corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye which is likely to call for a premature termination of the incumbent administration.
His weakness, however, is the lack of time to ease into his home country, to befriend the public and to face an earlier-than-planned presidential race, which is likely to take place around April.Who is Ban Ki-moon?
Born in 1944, in Eumseong-gun in North Chungcheong Province, Ban made a high-profile debut in civic society by passing the nation’s Foreign Service Examination in 1970.
The elite diplomat swiftly earned fame within the Foreign Ministry and consecutively filled key posts such as the director of American affairs and chief of foreign policy.
Rumors have it that Ban’s career success was so conspicuous that he once asked superiors to defer his promotion so that he would not have to outpace his seniors.
But challenges awaited him in 2001, when he was pushed to step down from his vice ministerial post, taking responsibility over the aggravated Korea-US bilateral ties over the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
Ban then took the post as the protocol secretary of Han Seung-soo, the then-chairman of the UN general meeting -- deemed a demotion for a former vice minister.
It was the former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun who brought Ban back to domestic affairs by appointing him as presidential assistant of foreign affairs in 2003.
Though he was at times criticized for his allegedly excessive pro-US stance, Ban soon gained credit in the Roh administration for his negotiating skills, which turned out to be valuable in crucial issues under way at the time -- such as the six-party talks pivoting on North Korea’s nuclear armament.
Backed by the Roh government’s full-fledged support, Ban was named the 33rd secretary-general of the United Nations, becoming the first Korean to take the post.
His elite career, along with his biography titled “Study like a fool, dream like a prodigy,” has inspired a lot of the South Korean youth over the years.Rising to the presidential race
During his 10-year service at the UN, the former diplomat has always maintained amicable relations with the South Korean leadership, regardless of their respective political tendency.
Ban is also noted to be a rare high-profile civic servant to have “survived” over four disparate administrations, from the military dictatorship of the Chun Doo-hwan government to the progressive Roh administration.
Though his history largely associated him with the Roh government, Ban fit in with the successive conservative governments, including the current President Park Geun-hye administration.
It was Ban’s apparent neutrality, as well as publicity, which made him an appealing presidential successor for President Park and her ruling Saenuri Party.
Amid burgeoning speculations on Ban’s likely bid for South Korea’s next presidency, the UN chief official met with Park during her visit to the UN headquarters in 2015.
His favorable remarks over the Saemaeul Movement -- one of Park’s flagship projects to develop rural areas -- and his close-door meetings with the president further boosted the rumors of his political aspirations after returning back home.
But with the president currently facing impeachment and the Saenuri camp divided in factional feuds, it is yet uncertain whether the returned diplomat will create a new political entity or join hands with existing groups.Integrity tests lying ahead
Despite uncertainties and challenges, it nevertheless remains that Ban is one of the top two frontrunners to contend in the upcoming presidential election.
Possibilities are that his winning rate may rise further as a number of political groups are seeking to recruit him as a plausible presidential hopeful.
Standing first in line is the Barun Party, a centrist spin-off from the conservative Saenuri. The People’s Party, another runner-up opposition party, has been gesturing at inviting the former UN official.
The critical disincentive for Ban is the recently suggested allegation that he and his family members were involved in bribery.
A survey conducted by local pollster Realmeter in the second week of January showed Ban to have 20.3 percent in approval rating, down 1.2 percentage points from the previous week. Moon Jae-in, former chairman and top presidential candidate of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, took the lead with 27.9 percent.
The key reason of the fall is the allegation that he received bribes worth $230,000 from a local businessman in 2005-2007. This, combined with his brother and nephew’s indictment in New York -- also over bribery charges -- seemed to have put a damper on the public’s enthusiasm over the returning diplomat.
Observers also pointed out that an excessive welcoming mood from his aides may cause a reverse effect, especially on those who are not yet decided on who to advocate in the forthcoming election.
Ban’s supporters, especially in his home turf in North Chungceong, have triggered some disputes by presenting a song or building a headstone, praising Ban’s “great achievements.”
“We will minimize the level of formalities (for Ban) so that Ban can communicate closely with the people,” his spokesperson Lee Do-woon told reporters on Jan.11, in an apparent guard against such exaltation.
But Ban once again came under fire on Jan.12, just hours before his arrival, due to reports that his aides had requested for a special welcoming ceremony. His office later explained that it had received the offer from Incheon International Airport Corporation to use the VIP room but refused the idea.
By Bae Hyun-jung/The Korea Herald (email@example.com