For Ban Ki-moon, Is There Life After the U.N.?

For Ban Ki-moon, Is There Life After the U.N.?
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

After he steps down as U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon could be a frontrunner for the presidency in South Korea. But some issues will have to be resolved first.

With his second term as U.N. Secretary-General to end in December this year, Ban Ki-moon appears to be considering a run for president in South Korea in December of 2017.

The 71-year-old would not be the first secretary general to pursue a partisan political career after the U.N. Gladwyn Jebb, the U.N.’s first acting Secretary General (1946-1946), joined the Liberal Party in the U.K., serving in the House of Lords and unsuccessfully running for European Parliament. Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General from 1972-1981, served as president of Austria from 1986-1992. Javier Perez de Cuellar (1982-1991) later ran unsuccessfully against President Alberto Fujimori in Peru and was prime minister in 2000-2001.

If Ban does opt to run, this may result in a return to multi-candidate presidential races in South Korea, reminiscent of the early days of democratization, rather than U.S.-style races that are largely limited to two large parties. South Korea’s first free and fair democratic election in 1987 resulted in a four-candidate race, with the outgoing authoritarian leader’s preferred candidate, Roh Tae-woo, winning with 36.6%. In fact, the only presidential election in which the winner received an absolute majority was Park Geun-hye’s 2012 victory.

Assuming Ban were to run as the Saenuri Party’s candidate, the expectation remains that Moon Jae-in of the Minjoo Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party will both run. Both Moon and Ahn entered the 2012 race, with Ahn ultimately dropping out rather than splitting the opposition vote. However, based on his party’s unexpected performance in the 2016 National Assembly election and little desire to coordinate with the Minjoo Party, it is unlikely Ahn will bow out a second time. Alternatively, the failure of the Minjoo Party to run a candidate would likely encourage a greater exodus in legislative and local elections towards Ahn’s party. Under expected circumstances, despite 2016’s National Assembly election losses for the Saenuri Party, a Ban Ki-moon candidacy not only appears viable, but he is potentially a frontrunner. Polls, for example, already show Ban leading both prospective challengers (here and here).

Despite Ban’s potential electoral viability, such a run creates additional questions. The U.N., for example, passed a resolution in support of barring secretaries-general from taking government positions immediately after their U.N. term concludes, with others concerned about how confidential information gained through the U.N. could be used for political gain.

Ban’s tenure has been viewed by many, including The Economist, as ineffective and nondescript, a track record that may become a liability in electoral competition. Similarly, Ban’s interest in greater dialogue with North Korea, itself likely influenced by his U.N. experience, contrasts with the Saenuri Party’s traditional position. Yet the U.N.’s inability to restrain Pyongyang despite increased sanctions will likely be viewed by many as a weakness.