Since taking over "the world's most impossible job" at the beginning of the year, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has remained determinedly upbeat, despite the usual sniping from all sides. The low-key former South Korean foreign minister is still figuring out where he can make his mark, but he is beginning to look more focused in his efforts to tackle some of the world's most complex problems. In his office on the United Nations' 38th floor last week, he talked with NEWSWEEK Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Richard M. Smith.
Smith: Has President Bush become a believer on climate change?
Ban: It took some time for me to get President Bush and the U.S. administration to join these U.N. negotiations. I am encouraged that President Bush has finally recognized this as a defining issue, and that the U.N. is the right forum to deal with it.
You've heard some criticism that maybe you're too close to the United States.
I don't quite understand why a closer relationship with the United States should be a problem. The U.S. is one of the most important members of the United Nations. Both as secretary-general and earlier as Korea's foreign minister, I have made so many friends around the world. My advantage is that I can speak to anybody.
It must have been a difficult decision to increase the U.N. presence in Iraq.
The safety and security of our staff is paramount. We are in the process of building safe buildings. We are going to increase our staff from 65 to 85, adding an office in Erbil in northern Iraq, and we are now thinking about establishing one in Basra.
You talk about engaging Iraq's neighbors, but some people believe Syria and Iran have no interest in a peaceful solution in Iraq.
In any dialogue, inclusiveness is very important. There may be countries that people regard as spoilers. Even if we might not expect them to play a constructive role, at least we can prevent them from spoiling the process.
With Iran, there's the separate nuclear issue. What's the U.N. role here?
Practically speaking, this has been dealt with primarily by the European Union and Americans. I've met with President Ahmadinejad and other senior officials. I only hope that the Iranians will become more realistic rather than ideological, and meet the expectations and wishes of the international community by fully complying with the Security Council resolution.
As a Korean, do you feel a special responsibility to work on the North Korea issue?
I was deeply involved in the South-North relationship in my previous capacity as foreign minister and national-security adviser to the president. As secretary-general, I was very much encouraged when the six parties agreed on a joint statement for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. I hope this will lead eventually toward unification.
There's been some criticism that you rely on a Korean network here in the U.N.
That is very unfair. There are not many Koreans, a total of less than 60, I think, in the U.N. system. I have brought in only two or three, including one secretary. This kind of unfounded criticism may come from jealousy. This is an intergovernmental body, and we respect all differences of cultures and traditions. Those who make this criticism should also try to understand Asian values and cultures.
Speaking of Asian values, many people are concerned that China is an obstacle on Darfur and other issues.
That is an unnecessary concern. On Darfur, they have been playing a constructive role, and I have been in constant discussions with them. They were the first to dispatch engineering teams to Darfur, and they have appointed a special envoy.
What surprises have you found sitting behind your new desk?
What humbles me are the very high expectations for the whole of the United Nations and particularly for the secretary-general. There are so many challenges around the world—hunger, extreme poverty, diseases, all sorts of regional conflicts. Now we are faced with global warming, the defining issue of our era. The United Nations is so limited in terms of resources, and by all these complex systems that have accumulated over six decades. Simplifying, rationalizing, deregulating them will be a serious challenge. It's much more than I had expected.