Ban Call to Sanction North Korea on Ship Sinking Pushes Limits of UN Post

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, is setting aside the traditional impartiality of his post to push for sanctioning North Korea over a suspected naval attack.

Ban has endorsed the conclusion of an international probe that North Korea was behind the March 26 sinking of a South Korean warship, before neighboring China and Russia have judged the findings. In a departure from the tradition that UN chiefs let the Security Council take the lead in such disputes, he said May 24 the body should adopt “necessary measures appropriate to the gravity and seriousness of this issue.”

South Korea has said it will bring the case to the Security Council with U.S. backing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters yesterday in Seoul that the U.S. appreciated Ban’s “strong statement.”

“It is the duty of the secretary-general to be objective, but not to sit on the fence on all issues,” Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters yesterday in New York. “He has consistently expressed strong concerns on any number of worrisome events.”

Ban’s validation of the investigation and his expression of concern were “extremely timely and important,” said Evans Revere, former president of the Korea Society in New York and now a senior director for the Albright Stonebridge consulting group in Washington.

Humanitarian Needs

The UN chief balanced his talk of concern with a pledge to meet the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people, said Revere, a retired U.S. diplomat who just returned from a visit to the region and advised American and South Korean officials.

The Korean tensions have roiled stock markets and currency exchanges. The won fell 3 percent on May 25 to 1,251.1 per dollar, the biggest drop since March 30, 2009. The Kospi index sank 2.8 percent to 1,560.83 before rallying yesterday to recover about half of the decline.

Playing an active role in the crisis leaves Ban open to criticism that he is favoring South Korea. Ban was advised to limit his role by China, Japan and Russia when he took office on Jan. 1, 2007.

Ban’s involvement should be “informal, low key, silent,” Wang Guangya, then China’s ambassador to UN, said at the time.

No Holding Back

“Usually the secretary-general holds back in order to be available to parties that want to find ways out of unwanted escalations,” Jeff Laurenti, a political analyst at the New York-based Century Foundation, said in an interview. “It might seem to some now that he was reverting to his previous employment.”

China and Russia have limited their reactions to the South Korean report to urging restraint from all sides.

Ban, 65, told reporters May 24 that while he’ bound to be “objective and fair,” his South Korean roots and former diplomatic role make it difficult to stay on the sidelines.

“I myself participated as one of the negotiators in drawing up a joint declaration for the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in 1991 and 1992,” Ban said. “I myself served as vice chairman of the Joint Nuclear Control Commission between South and North Korea. Therefore, I have a very strong attachment and even a sense of responsibility. This is most troubling for me to see what is happening. That’s my motherland.”

Ban asked reporters to understand why he would “limit as much as I can my answers or involvement in this case.”

‘Deeply Disturbed’

After North Korea carried out a second nuclear-bomb test a year ago, Ban said he was “deeply disturbed.” The Security Council voted unanimously on June 12 to curb loans and money transfers to North Korea and step up inspection of cargoes suspected of ties to development of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.

Ban’s ability to intervene is constrained by his inability to establish a direct line of communication with Pyongyang leaders. He sent his top political aide, former U.S. diplomat Lynn Pascoe, to North Korea in February in part to solve that problem.

While Pascoe described the visit as “useful” and met with officials including Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun, the trip didn’t secure a communications link for Ban. He hasn’t spoken to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“The challenge in this situation is to get China on board,” John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said in an interview. Ban’s role “is to build consensus rather than being a prime mover. The real movers will be China and the U.S.”


Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrives tomorrow in South Korea for a summit with President Lee Myung Bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has so far refused to take a stand on the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died.

In the Korean crisis, Park said Ban may see the need to build support for a second five-year term, a decision the UN General Assembly and the Security Council will make next year. Winning another term requires the support of the five permanent members of the Security Council: China, Russia, the U.S., U.K. and France.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bill Varner at the United Nations at

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