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Ban Ki-Moon Takes Lead at United Nations

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The new leader at the United Nations begins work today. South Korea's Ban Ki-Moon is the new secretary general. He says he will pay particular attention to the crisis in Darfur and to the nuclear standoff in North Korea. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Keleman reports.

MICHELE KELEMAN: Ban Ki-Moon went straight to the UN press corps as he began work today.

Mr. BAN KI-MOON (Secretary General, United Nations): I start my duties at a daunting time in international affairs, starting from Darfur to Middle East, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, North Korea - many of the crisis that trouble our world.

KELEMAN: Reporters - knowing his nickname, the Slippery Eel - tried to pin him down on a few things, what he'll do about Darfur to get UN peacekeepers there. And what about the talks on North Korea's nuclear disarmament? He said those would be priorities for him and matters that he said needed to be addressed collectively. What about the rushed hanging of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein over the weekend? Ban's answer there was, well, diplomatic.

Mr. KI-MOON: The capital punishment, death penalty is the issue for each and every member state to decide. At the same time, I would hope that international member states would pay due regard to all aspects of international humanitarian laws.

KELEMAN: Ban Ki-Moon is a 62-year-old former South Korean foreign minister, a man who has spent his career in international diplomacy. Friends and colleagues describe him as cautious and quiet. Shin Wa-Li(ph), a professor at Korea University, says Ban Ki-Moon is a workaholic - the kind of man who goes straight to the office after a long trip overseas.

Professor SHIN WA-LI (Korea University): He's a workaholic person. But in Korea, when they say workaholic, that's the (unintelligible) a compliment rather than criticism.

KELEMAN: The U.S. supported his candidacy, though it has had differences with him in the past. Edward Luck of Columbia University says Ban supported the South Korean policy of reaching out to North Korea, rather than the U.S. approach to isolate it.

Dr. EDWARD LUCK (Columbia University): Well, he's very much, I think, identified with the sunshine policy, which, of course, is not Washington's policy. But that is a very UN'ish kind of a policy in terms of reaching out, not simply trying to coerce them to come around.

KELEMAN: An early test of his relationship with Washington will be how he builds up his team. Ban made two appointments over the weekend: Indian Vijay Nambiar as Chief of Staff and Michele Montas, an award-winning Haitian journalist as his spokeswoman. As for what sort of Secretary General Ban will be, Edward Luck says Ban is unlikely to speak out much early in his tenure.

Mr. LUCK: He prides himself on his ability to do behind-the-scenes diplomacy, something that could come in handy for a secretary general. But he's not the stiff bureaucrat that I think some people have tried to picture him as. He's someone who seems to have a good sense of humor, who's quite affable.

KELEMAN: And so far, he seems to enjoy the limelight.

Mr. KI-MOON: My name is Ban, not James Bond.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELEMAN: That's the new secretary general loosening up in front of journalists as he made the rounds over the holidays to get ready for his new job.

Mr. KI-MOON: (Singing) I'm making a list, checking it twice…

KELEMAN: Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington.

Mr. KI-MOON: (Singing) …naughty or nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KI-MOON: Ban Ki-Moon is coming to town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.