(News Focus) Political talk shifts to Ban's future course of action
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 22 (Yonhap) -- After signaling his intention to run for president next year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon faces a tough choice on whether to enter an existing party, join a coalition of like-minded politicians, or create his own party.
On Tuesday, 10 days before his second five-year term as the U.N. helmsman ends, Ban said that he is willing to fully devote himself to his home country -- the strongest indication yet that he would join the presidential race.
"If what I have learned, seen and felt during my 10-year service as U.N. secretary-general could help advance the Republic of Korea, I am willing to fully devote myself to it," Ban said during a valedictory meeting with South Korean journalists at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
This image shows U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the main chamber of the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)
There is the possibility that South Koreans may vote to pick a successor to President Park Geun-hye earlier than expected after the National Assembly impeached the chief executive over a high-profile corruption scandal centering around her longtime friend.
The Constitutional Court will determine whether to unseat the president or reinstate her after a legal review that could last up to six months. If the court upholds the impeachment motion, the country will hold an election -- originally scheduled for December next year -- within 60 days of the verdict.
The likelihood of Ban seeking a tie-up with the ruling Saenuri Party remains slim as the party has lost public confidence due to the political scandal. Ban has been seen as moving to distance himself from the unpopular president and her party.
Last week, Ban made a rare criticism of the Park administration in light of the scandal, voicing concerns over the country's "complete lack of good governance." Such comments hint that he may not be seeking to run for president on the ruling party ticket.
Some observers, however, raised the possibility that dozens of Saenuri lawmakers, who have decided to leave the party next week amid factional infighting, may try to court Ban, who has ranked first or second in terms of public support in various polls over the past several months.
Some 35 Saenuri lawmakers, who have been in a long-simmering feud with party loyalists to Park, plan to quit the fractured party to create their own political group that they say would represent "true conservatism."
When Ban returns home in mid-January as he stated, more lawmakers are expected to bolt from the ruling party to support Ban, which will leave the embattled party dominated by staunch Park loyalists.
Chung Jin-suk, a former Saenuri floor leader, is among the lawmakers who decided to stay for the time being, but will likely leave upon Ban's return.
"Ban is a Korean who has seen the world from the broadest perspective (while serving as U.N. chief)," he told Yonhap News Agency over the phone. "Unlike establishment politicians, he is a figure who can bring about fresh change in politics."
This photo, taken on Dec. 12, 2016, shows Chung Jin-suk, former floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, speaking in a meeting with reporters at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Should Ban join the party that Saenuri defectors plan to create, he is likely to face competition from a series of contenders such as Rep. Yoo Seong-min and Gyeonggi Gov. Nam Kyung-pil.
The intraparty contest to become the standard-bearer may not be an easy task for Ban, a political neophyte. The former foreign minister has little experience in domestic politics.
With the rise of Ban as a formidable presidential contender, political watchers also raise the possibility of him joining the "third political zone" -- a term referring to a group of politicians who are not anchored in the political mainstream, but can appeal to a growing number of voters disenchanted with establishment politics.
The minor People's Party and "non-mainstreamers" in the main opposition Democratic Party who are disgruntled with the domination of loyalists to former party leader Moon Jae-in in the party, have led the political debate over the creation of the third political zone.
Those eyeing the new political grouping largely pursue centrist values as they seek to expand their presence by embracing participants from across the political spectrum. They also see the possibility of joining with those set to quit the ruling party.
The People's Party, in fact, welcomed Ban's moves to join the presidential race.
"We, in principle, agree to the idea of U.N. Secretary-General Ban using his ample experience for the nation," Kim Dong-cheol, the party's interim leader, told reporters. "I believe he can work with us."
The move to forge the third political zone could gain traction if non-mainstreamers -- conservative or liberal -- coalesce behind the issue of a constitutional revision, political watchers said.
Should Ban lead the issue of rewriting the decades-old law to bring about a shift in the country's contentious governance structure, he could emerge as a pivotal figure in the envisioned political zone.
Observers largely agree that Ban may not seek to create his own party to run in the election given that he lacks political experience, and that the creation of a new political entity would take a long time.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party's leadership moved to keep Ban in check, as political attention shifts to his presidential prospects.
"It is undesirable for the U.N. secretary-general to snoop around the murky domestic political arena," Choo Mi-ae, the party's leader, told reporters.
This photo, taken on Dec. 21, 2016, shows Rep. Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, speaking during a meeting with senior party officials at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)