(News Focus) Ban's plan to return home in January causing ripple effect in domestic politics
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 19 (Yonhap) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's recent remarks on his plan to return home early next year is triggering a ripple effect throughout South Korea's political circles with many considering him a strong contender for president.
During a meeting with leading South Korean politicians in New York on Thursday, Ban clarified his plan to come to Seoul "before mid-January" after his second five-year term as U.N. chief ends late this year. His remarks have since spawned speculation that he would earnestly begin political activities early next year to boost his presidential prospects.
Although Ban has refused to discuss the possibility of running in the presidential election slated for December next year, he has never ruled it out -- a reason why the rumor mills haven’t stopped when it comes to his presidential ambitions.
This photo, taken on Sept. 4, 2016, shows U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attending the G20 summit in China's eastern lakeside city of Hangzhou. (Yonhap)
Further feeding speculation are various opinion polls that have shown Ban consistently ahead of other potential candidates such as Moon Jae-in, former leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK), and Ahn Cheol-soo, former co-chair of the minor opposition People's Party.
According to the survey conducted last week by local daily Kukmin Ilbo and pollster Realmeter, Ban ranked first with a support rating of 25.9 percent, trailed by Moon with 18.2 percent and Ahn with 10.8 percent.
This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows Moon Jae-in (L), former leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, and Ahn Cheol-soo, former co-chair of the minor opposition People's Party. (Yonhap)
Ban's ascent as a possible presidential contender has been largely welcomed by the ruling Saenuri Party, which has been seeking fresh momentum for a powerful lineup to effectively take on would-be opposition rivals such as Moon and Ahn.
In particular, a ruling party faction closely affiliated with President Park Geun-hye has shown high expectations for Ban's bid, as other potential candidates, such as Reps. Kim Moo-sung and Yoo Seong-min, are seen as "too weak" to win the critical election. The two lawmakers, moreover, have not maintained the best of ties with the pro-Park faction.
"Many people express hope that a person with an excellent grasp of international relations can lead the nation," a Saenuri lawmaker told Yonhap News Agency over the phone, declining to be named.
With Ban mentioned as a possible ruling party standard-bearer, speculation has been rising that the Saenuri Party may seek to win next year's election by rallying support from both the country's southeastern region of Gyeongsang, its traditional support base, and the central Chungcheong region, largely considered politically neutral.
Ban hails from Chungcheong, where voters have been long been pushing to make one of their own the country's president.
This photo, taken on April 1, 2016, shows President Park Geun-hye (3rd from L) exchanging greetings with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (R) during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. (Yonhap)
Meanwhile, the prospect of Ban throwing his hat in the ring has unnerved the opposition camp, triggering apparent moves to keep him in check.
"There are many views raising questions over whether it is appropriate for (Ban), who served as the president of the world, to run in the domestic election," MPK spokesman Youn Kwan-suk told reporters.
Youn added that it is necessary to "thoroughly" check if Ban is qualified to serve as South Korean president, who will have to confront both economic challenges and security threats coming from a provocative North Korea.
MPK floor leader Woo Sang-ho even pressured Ban to prove his ability to address the decades-old nuclear standoff with North Korea while he is still in charge of the international organization.
"There is a sense of frustration that a South Korean chief of the United Nations has failed to tackle the North Korean nuclear issue while serving at the organization for 10 years," he said in a meeting with reporters.
Kim Gyeong-rok, a spokesman for the People's Party, went further, raising doubts over whether the former career diplomat can wade through the rough waters of domestic politics. Before joining the U.N. in 2007, Ban served as Seoul's foreign minister from 2004 to 2006 under late former President Roh Moo-hyun.
"A question mark still hangs over whether he can play a role as a politician," Kim told reporters. "I hope he can bring his duty as U.N. secretary-general to a successful conclusion."
Amid burgeoning speculation over his presidential prospects, Ban has recently made a series of remarks related to security and North Korea's nuclear threats, giving a glimpse into his possible policy orientation.
During a meeting with South Korean parliamentary leaders, led by National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun, Ban expressed his opposition to the idea of South Korea going nuclear.
Ban was quoted as saying that it is "undesirable" for the South to pursue nuclear armament, and as one of the world's largest economies it should abide by international norms -- apparently referring to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
Following Pyongyang's fifth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 9, calls have been growing for South Korea to develop its own nuclear arms or demand the United States, its key security ally, redeploy tactical nuclear weapons. The Seoul government has so far dismissed the calls, stressing the need to stay fast to its long-held denuclearization principles.
In a recent interview, Ban also said after his term as the U.N. helmsman ends this year, he wants to make efforts to promote inter-Korean reconciliation -- a project that has been foiled by Pyongyang's unceasing provocations and belligerent rhetoric against Seoul.