15 JULY 2008

Ban Ki-moon must have felt elated returning to Seoul for the first time as United Nations Secretary General. Modest as he may wish to seem, he is entitled to be proud of being both the most visible Korean and the most senior international civil servant. An added reason for his extraordinary accomplishment is that Korea had just joined the United Nations comparatively recently -- less than two decades of the Organization's 63 years. Naturally, there was an initiation period in the early Nineties when a limited number of Korean individuals sought to capitalize on their country's good name to advance their personal agendas. The now detained Mr. Park was one, but not an only seeker of U.N. jobs. Diligently evaluating their feedback, however, some perceptive Korean diplomats managed to correct their compass and eventually present a more credible set of candidates. The successful election of Mr. Ban was an indication that only being Korean was not enough. In a multinational community, you've got to earn your credentials.

Having someone with a totally new "culture" may have some drawbacks, but it certainly has its refreshingly positive advantages. To begin with, it initiated a two-way street of impact: as a leader, a distinguished Korean brings along to the U.N. a highly regarded tradition of honest hard work, coupled with a keen desire for harmony, good will and teamwork. As a national of a newly joining member state, he would inject gradually and systematically into its mainstream a realistic appreciation of the role played by the United Nations in our shared world.

That is precisely what Mr. Ban did upon arriving in Korea on 3 July when he called upon his compatriots "to play a larger role" in confronting global challenges -- rising food and energy prices, climate change and terrorism. Addressing students and faculty of his Alma Mater, Seoul National University, where he received an honorary doctorate, his "central message" was that the Republic of Korea has more to contribute to the world.

That call should be fully supported. While the international community has shown its regard for the potential of Korea by selecting one of its citizens as Secretary General, it is hoped that such potential will be demonstrated further through fuller participation in priority international ventures. Joining in the peacekeeping mission is only one aspect. Incidentally, in that regard, the photo of Mr. Ban cheering along with a battalion getting ready for UNIFIL in Southern Lebanon received front page coverage in Beirut dailies. There are so many areas on an open horizon. The Secretary General mentioned a few pressing issues. But the whole wide world is the limit.

It was understandable that caution prevailed during an initial period. It is part of approaching the unknown by all sides. However, it is now time to spread a leadership vision. A perception of a closely-knit secretive team of national staff around the Secretary General would be gradually shattered with a wider and more participatory thrust by the whole country. Instead of futile whispers about the influence of one or two Koreans in New York, there will then be open recognition of a welcome role of a country that -- by necessity -- joined late but made up for it by being there where and when it is needed. If that perception develops effectively, it will certainly consolidate Ban Ki-moon's own stature both as U.N. Secretary General and a loyal son of Korea.