UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. General Assembly appointed South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon as the next U.N. secretary general Friday, and the veteran diplomat who grew up during a war that divided his country pledged to make peace with North Korea a top priority.
The assembly’s action on Ban capped the remarkable rise of a man who was little known outside Asia before launching his campaign to succeed Kofi Annan. It also marked a milestone for South Korea, which only joined the United Nations in 1991 and still has U.N. troops on the tense border with the North.
Ban has been in the forefront of South Korea’s nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang and has said he plans to travel to North Korea as secretary-general, something Annan never did. He said last month he would use the authority of the U.N. position to promote peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula “and a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.”
The U.S. and Japan were pushing for a vote by the Security Council Saturday on a resolution imposing punishing sanctions on the North for its claimed nuclear test earlier this week. The test prompted worldwide outrage and demands from the U.S. and its allies for the isolated communist regime to return to six-party talks aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear program.
Ban told a press conference soon after his selection that he hopes the Security Council “quickly adopts a clear and strong resolution” to show North Korea that the international community is united against its claimed nuclear test.
In a speech to hundreds of diplomats and U.N. staff Friday, Ban laid out his vision for the United Nations whose reputation has been tarnished by corruption scandals and whose outdated practices still need major reform to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
“My tenure will be marked by ceaseless efforts to build bridges and close divides,” he said. “Leadership of harmony not division, by example not instruction, has served me well so far. I intend to stay the course as secretary-general.”
During a nearly 40-year career as a diplomat, Ban said, “I have been elated by the successes of the U.N. in making life better for countless people. I have also been pained by scenes of its failures. In too many places could I feel the dismay over inaction of the U.N., or action that was too little or came too late.”
“I am determined to dispel the disillusionment,” he said.
Ban, 62, will become the eighth secretary-general in the U.N.’s 60-year history on Jan. 1 when Annan’s second five-year term expires. He was one of seven candidates vying to be the U.N. chief and topped all four informal polls in the Security Council.
He said he was proud to be the second Asian chosen to serve as secretary-general. The last secretary-general from the continent was Burma’s U Thant, who served from 1961-71.
By tradition, the post of secretary-general rotates among the regions of the world and most countries agreed that this time it was Asia’s turn.
Hundreds of diplomats and U.N. staff in the chamber broke into loud applause when assembly president Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa asked the 192-nation world body to adopt the resolution appointing Ban by acclamation. She then banged the gavel and said, “It is so decided.”
Annan hailed Ban as “a future secretary-general who is exceptionally attuned to the sensitivities of countries and constituencies in every continent” and said he would be “a man with a truly global mind at the helm of the world’s only universal organization.”
Annan recalled that the first U.N. secretary-general, Trygvie Lie, told his successor, Dag Hammarskjold, “You are about to take over the most impossible job on Earth.”
“While that may be true,” Annan said, “I would say: This is also the best possible job on Earth.”
He said he had only one piece of advice for his successor when he takes over _ “try to make full use of the unparalleled resource you will find in the staff of the organization. Their commitment is the U.N.’s greatest asset.”
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Ban is “the right person to lead the United Nations at this decisive movement in its history, particularly as the U.N. struggles to fulfill the terms of the reform agenda that world leaders agreed to last fall.”
Ban has been South Korea’s foreign minister for more than 2 1/2 years and served as national security adviser to two presidents _ jobs that focused on relations with North Korea. During his diplomatic career, he was posted in India, Austria, Washington and at the United Nations.
Ban received a degree in international relations from Seoul National University in 1970, and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1985.
An early influence for him came from a White House visit with President John F. Kennedy as part of a program organized by the American Red Cross when he was an 18-year-old student. His visit is captured in a black-and-white photo that shows Ban smiling among students from other countries as the president spoke.
Ban on Friday harkened back to his childhood, saying the United Nations stood by South Korea in its impoverished postwar days.
“It has been a long journey from my youth in war-torn and desperate Korea to this rostrum and these awesome responsibilities,” he said. “I could make this journey because the U.N. was with my people in our darkest days. It gave us hope and sustenance, security and dignity. It showed us a better way.”
He said he hopes to head a United Nations like the one he remembered from his boyhood.
“I am an optimist, and I am full of hope about the future of our global organization. Let us work together for a U.N. that can deliver more and better.”
Associated Press Writer Edward Harris contributed to this report