Is Ban eyeing S. Korean presidency?

UN chief's recent meetings with Park fuel speculation that he may join presidential race

South Korean President Park Geun Hye (C)  with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon (left) and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim ahead of their talks at Mr Ban's residence in New York on  Sept 25,  2015.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye (C) with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon (left) and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim ahead of their talks at Mr Ban's residence in New York on Sept 25, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

Speculation that United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon would run for South Korean presidency has resurfaced after he was seen meeting frequently with incumbent Park Geun Hye in New York recently.

Ms Park, who was there from Sept 25 to 28 to attend the UN General Assembly, met Mr Ban seven times in four days. This came barely a month after both were in Beijing to attend China's war anniversary parade.

The flurry of meetings, even though it is not known what they discussed, has fuelled talk in Seoul that the ruling Saenuri party is trying to convince Mr Ban to join the presidential race in 2017, according to local reports.

Saenuri lawmaker Hong Moon Jong made it clear in a radio interview yesterday that Mr Ban, the country's most popular and inspiring political figure , has "enough potential to be a candidate" and that the public has high hopes for him.

Mr Ban's UN tenure ends late next year, around the time that presidential candidates kick off their election campaigns.

Despite insisting he has no presidential ambitions, the 71-year-old has consistently emerged as the top choice as Ms Park's successor in opinion polls. Ms Park is slated to step down in early 2018.

In polls by TNT and Media Research last month, he was ranked higher than Saenuri chairman Kim Moo Sung and main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) chairman Moon Jae In.

When Mr Ban visited Seoul in May, fuelling speculation he was eyeing the presidency, he was also ranked higher than Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon, another potential NPAD contender.

Mr Ban has not responded to the latest round of speculation, but in May, he had urged people to "stop making any assumptions about my political future, like conducting opinion polls".

His popularity comes as no surprise, given his UN achievements and his work as foreign minister under the Roh Moo Hyun administration a decade ago.

The story of a country boy from the rural North Chungcheong province who was inspired to become a diplomat after meeting then US President John F. Kennedy in 1962 has been the subject of several biographies. He joined the foreign ministry in 1970 after graduating from the prestigious Seoul National University. Since becoming UN secretary-general in 2006, he has championed peace, equality and human rights. He also tried to reconcile the two Koreas.

"Our people are very proud of Ban Ki Moon. We didn't think our own countryman can become UN secretary-general. That is quite an achievement," said Chung-Ang University Emeritus Professor Lee Sang Don.

Mr Ban, who is married to his high school sweetheart and has three children, is also deemed to be calm, polite and incorruptible, but Prof Lee said his lack of experience in domestic politics could be his weakness if he does decide to run for presidency.

The UN chief has not indicated support for any party so far, even though he has been courted by both the ruling and opposition parties.

Mr Yoon Tae Gon, a political analyst with MOA Agenda & Strategy Group, said on SBS radio: "Ban said he doesn't have time to pay attention to Korean politics, but he never said he wouldn't run for presidency next."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'Is Ban eyeing S. Korean presidency?'. Print Edition | Subscribe