UNITED NATIONS. IS KOREAN THE SECOND U.N. WORKING LANGUAGE?

 

15 DECEMBER 2009

IS KOREAN THE SECOND U.N. WORKING LANGUAGE?

Asked in French whether the newly-appointed Spokesman for the Secretary General spoke French, one of the two U.N. working languages, the official response was that "the Office of the Spokesperson includes French speakers."

First, that statement is NOT ACCURATE. As the name indicates, a spokesman, spokeswoman, or spokesperson, will actually have to SPEAK to the press on the record. Among those who actually do so in the current Secretary General's office, after the departure of Michele Montas, there is NO ONE in that office to convincingly SPEAK FLUENT FRENCH.

That by itself need not have become an issue. A long-term Spokesman for Secretary General Kofi Annan, Fred Eckhart, did not speak French, although, ironically, he now retired in France. Anyway, most French diplomats are too busy seeking cushy jobs at the U.N. to plead any case other than their own. We'll get to that problem in another issue. The point is that there is no longer any serious pressure to substantively operate in the second working language.

In fact, there are more KOREAN speakers in the Secretary General's "Spokesperson" office than French. There's the rub. Most comments reporting on the appointment of Martin Nesirky highlighted the fact that he was married to a Korean and spoke that language. As the Reuter's Patrick Worsnip pointed out in a professionally balanced report, "diplomats have long complained that Ban is happiest in a Korean comfort zone and relies too much on a compatriot who serves as his deputy chief-of-staff, Kim Won-soo."

Not only diplomats, Secretariat staff have been whispering amongst themselves about the "Korean connection" in relation to so many appointments; Patrick Worsnip's story was widely circulated by the staff with particularly stress on the Korean comfort zone.

We do not wish to go into detail, but would mention that Kim Won-soo (dubbed Kim Too-soon) was not an isolated case. At least one senior official in the Secretary General's office who was kept by the incoming Secretary General is married to a Korean. In addition to the wonderfully reclusive yet diligently observant Ms. Choi, another Korean Hak-Fan Lau was added to the "Spokesperson's Office." Staff in the Technology area have been chatting for over a year that their newly-appointed "Ms. Choi" communicated directly with the Secretary General in Korean. An embarrassing situation arose last year at the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and the Fifth Committee as TO WHOM or THROUGH WHOM did Ms. Choi report. The issue was discreetly -- and sensibly -- handled.

A year ago The Washington Post carried a story on the Korean angle. Instead of paying effective attention to it, the Korean team around the Secretary General initiated an insecure counterproductive attack, provoking more adversaries than gaining support.

The main victim in the current case is the appointed Spokesman, Martin Nesirky, an unquestionably competent media communicator. His impressive record goes back almost two decades to Reuters Moscow, Berlin, the Hague and Seoul, in addition to 3 years as head of the Press and Publications for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, when the intricate question of Security was added to his portfolio. He is obviously well connected, professionally prepared and would effectively serve the Secretary General -- if allowed to perform his designated functions with minimum supervision and maximum support.

However, the "Korean issue" will not go away unless handled soberly, clearly and positively. We tried to deal with it last year when the Secretary General made his first official visit home:

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. Another Korean who appeared around the same period then disappeared will not be named. Diligently evaluating their accredited diplomat's feedback, however, some perceptive Korean officials 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.