A Baptism by Fire

Last week the members of the United Nations selected a new secretary-general--the current foreign minister of South Korea, Ban Ki Moon, 62. Ban's selection came shortly after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, something the minister has spent his career working to avoid. First as foreign-policy adviser to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and later as foreign minister under South Korea's current president, Roh Moo Hyun, Ban has been heavily involved in the Six-Party Talks, a diplomatic attempt to contain North Korea's nuclear program. Last week Minister Ban sat down with newsweek's Lally Weymouth to discuss his new role as secretary-general. Excerpts:

BAN: North Korea has declared very defiantly that if the Security Council adopts any sanctions, it will regard this as a declaration of war. This is very worrisome and shows total disrespect of the United Nations.

I think that I would be in a much better position than any other previous secretary-general, as I come from Korea and have experience. I will try to coordinate with the concerned parties. If necessary, I will take my own initiative, which will include visiting North Korea and meeting with North Korean leaders.

I hope so. When the secretary-general of the United Nations visits [a country], normally the secretary-general deals with its leaders.

But he has met many leaders of the world.

The financial measures imposed on the North Korean accounts in Banco Delta Asia were because of the suspicion of North Korean illicit activities including counterfeiting [of U.S. currency]. It's wrong that North Korea has linked this issue to the Six-Party process. [Recently] the American government has said that if North Korea returns to the Six-Party Talks, they will be prepared to have bilateral discussions between the two [countries] on all pending measures, including these financial restrictions.

The South Korean government has been asking the U.S. to engage in bilateral talks with the North.

I think North Korea should be more realistic. Considering the economic and political difficulty they are facing, they should have taken a wiser path. Why should they take this dangerous and negative action? ...The Security Council resolution is primarily [focused] on taking sanctions against North Korea, [but] in the resolution there is a paragraph leaving the door open for North Korea to come to the dialogue table. We need a two-pronged approach. While we take a very strong and stern message and deliver it to North Korea, at the same time we need to leave some room for negotiations so as not to escalate the situation.

I don't think it's a total failure. The philosophy and objective of engagement is a good one. If we have to blame someone, it's North Korea. We have been trying to help North Korea in humanitarian matters and exchanges and cooperation. We wanted to widen the reconciliatory path in good faith. But the testing of nuclear weapons was a total display of disrespect to our good will.

Many issues are complex, so there may not be a magic formula. But working hard with open ears and an open heart and dialogue with concerned leaders will always help to facilitate the process of resolving issues. That's what I have been doing for four decades as a diplomat. As secretary-general, I will have a broader mandate . . . The world has so many issues like poverty and HIV/AIDS and other epidemics. Development is the key issue. Without the eradication of poverty, you will always see conflicts.

U.N. reform is my top priority. It's frustrating that people talk about the irrelevance of the United Nations. We should change the culture by making the Secretariat more professional, more accountable, more transparent, with a higher level of ethics.

That's right. I'll try to lead by example.