The homecoming of former UN chief Ban Ki-moon has brought him closer to a much-anticipated presidential bid in South Korea, signalling a tough few months for his potential rivals.
It also means a whole new political ordeal for the 72-year-old former diplomat who now enters domestic politics as a rookie.
Ban’s greatest strength is undoubtedly the public’s recognition of his prestigious career as the first-ever South Korean to take the UN’s top post – and also serve for two consecutive terms.
His overseas position has also kept him away from the political commotion here, particularly the corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye which is seems set to bring her impeachment.
His weakness, however, is a lack of time to ease into his home country, to “befriend” the public and prepare for a presidential race likely to take place around April.
Who is Ban Ki-moon?
Born in 1944, in Eumseong-gun in North Chungcheong Province, Ban passed the Foreign Service Examination in 1970 and began a lightning rise through the ranks, swiftly earning fame within the Foreign Ministry.
But challenges awaited him in 2001, when he was pushed to step down from his vice ministerial post, taking responsibility for South Korea-US tension over the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
President Roh Moo-hyun brought Ban back into domestic affairs by appointing him presidential assistant of foreign affairs in 2003.
Though he was at times criticised for his allegedly pro-US stance, Ban soon gained credit in the Roh administration for his negotiating skills in crucial forums such as the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear armament.
Backed by the Roh government, Ban was in 2007 named the 33rd secretary-general of the United Nations.
Rising to the presidential race
During his 10 years at the UN, the former diplomat maintained amicable relations with the South Korean leadership, regardless of their political tendency.
Ban is noted as a rare high-profile civic servant to have “survived” over four disparate administrations, from the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan to the progressive Roh administration.
Though largely associated with the Roh government, Ban fit in with the successive conservative governments, including the current Park administration.
It was Ban’s apparent neutrality, as well as publicity, which made him an appealing candidate as presidential successor for Park and her ruling Saenuri Party.
Amid burgeoning speculation of Ban’s likely bid, the UN chief official met with Park during her visit to the UN headquarters in 2015.
His favourable remarks over the Saemaeul Movement – one of Park’s flagship projects to develop rural areas – and his close-door meetings with the president further boosted the rumours of his presidential ambition.
But with Park currently facing impeachment and the Saenuri camp divided by factional feuding, it is uncertain whether Ban will now forge a new political entity or join hands with existing groups.
Integrity tests lie ahead
Despite uncertainties and challenges, Ban is one of the top two frontrunners in the upcoming presidential election.
And his chances may improve further, since a number of political groups are seeking to recruit him as their candidate.
Standing first in line is the Barun Party, a centrist spin-off from the conservative Saenuri. The People’s Party, another runner-up opposition party, is also courting the former UN chief.
A critical deterrent for Ban is the recent allegation that he and his family members were involved in bribery.
A survey conducted by local pollster Realmeter in the second week of January showed Ban to have 20.3 per cent in approval rating, down 1.2 percentage points from the previous week. Moon Jae-in, former chairman and top presidential candidate of the main opposition Democratic Party, took the lead with 27.9 per cent.
The key reason for the popularity drop is the allegation that Ban received bribes worth US$230,000 from a local businessman in 2005-2007. This, combined with his brother and nephew’s indictment in New York – also over bribery charges – seemed to have put a damper on the public’s enthusiasm for the returning diplomat.
Observers also pointed out that an excessive welcome from his supporters may prompt a backlash from as-yet undecided voters.
Ban’s supporters, especially in his home turf of North Chungceong, have triggered disputes by presenting a song and building a headstone in honour of Ban’s “great achievements”.
“We will minimise the level of formalities [for Ban] so that he can communicate closely with the people,” his spokesperson Lee Do-woon told reporters on Wednesday, in an apparent move against such exaltation.
But Ban once again came under fire yesterday, just hours before his arrival, after his aides reportedly requested a special welcoming ceremony. His office later explained it had received the offer from Incheon International Airport to use its VIP room but declined.