Will Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general from South Korea, run for the Korean presidency in 2017?
After Ban ranked first in opinion polls in June on presidential hopefuls ahead of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Rep. Moon Jae-in of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), more political watchers began to pay attention to him. In a poll of 1,000 adults conducted by Hangil Research on June 8, Ban took top place with 23.1 percent, followed by Mayor Park (15.3 percent) and Rep. Moon (14.2 percent).
There is no obstacle in his candidacy for the 19th presidential election to be held in December 2017 because his second five-year term as the U.N. chief, who is often called the ''President of the World,'' ends in December 2016.
True, it's not rare for former heads of international organizations to emerge as powerful figures in domestic politics thanks to his or her enhanced recognition while serving for the organizations. For example, former U.N. chief Boutros Boutros Ghali was one of presidential aspirants in 2011, when Egypt was in turmoil in the aftermath of dictator Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
According to press reports, Ban dropped his plan to make an annual visit to Seoul in August this year, probably conscious of mushrooming talk in the political arena about his possible candidacy in the 2017 presidential poll. His somewhat overblown sensitivity may be paradoxically fueling speculation about his political future.
Ban has every reason to enjoy high popularity domestically. First and foremost, people's distrust of established politicians may be expressed as an outpouring of support for Ban, who has accumulated valuable experience by mediating various international conflicts as U.N. chief. To be sure therefore, there must be public expectations for his potential ability to mitigate our deep-seated regional and ideological strife. That he is from the central Chungcheong provinces can be a plus factor.
Also, that's partly because the ruling camp lacks strong presidential candidates while there are prominent figures in the opposition. In fact, Kim Moo-sung remained at third in an opinion poll conducted earlier this week by Real Meter, although he was the frontrunner among ruling party aspirants thanks to his election as head of the governing Saenuri Party in a convention last week.
This may be going too far, but it's true some people strongly support his ascent to presidency as the right person to deal with North Korea and achieve national unification in the long run.
What's unique is that Ban is perceived as a candidate in the ruling camp even as he served as foreign minister under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who also played a decisive role in elevating him to the U.N. chief. He is currently enjoying high popularity among conservative voters who strongly support President Park Geun-hye and her ruling party.
Given that there are no strong pro-Park candidates in the Saenuri Party, there is a good chance that the pro-Park faction will scout Ban for the sake of election victory in 2017. So there are persistent rumors that some Saenuri officials have already been in contact with the U.N. head to sound out the possibility of his candidacy.
That he has no political base at home can stand in the way of his political ambition, but this can be overcome through partnerships with a faction in the governing party ― say pro-Park loyalists who have no strong potential presidential runner. Of course, questions linger over his political leadership, but it is a matter to be tackled by him.
What can block his entry into domestic politics is his advanced age of 70. By the time the next presidential election is held, he will be 73, which could be seen as too high for anyone to be the head of state.
A lifetime diplomat, Ban is often compared to Goh Kun, a career bureaucrat who once pondered on whether to run for presidency. In 2004, he assumed the role of acting president following then President Roh Moo-hyun's impeachment for three months, and his good performance elevated him to presidential frontrunner in opinion polls in 2006. At first, he flatly denied his candidacy despite high approval ratings, but considered running for presidency later. However, he declared his non-candidacy in early 2007 after Lee Myung-bak, then an opposition candidate, surged to the top in ratings in the aftermath of North Korea's nuclear weapons test.
Ban has never talked about his running for presidency, and it's generally said that that's not what he wants, especially in light of the fact that he is not a politician but a diplomat. But it's also true nothing is impossible in the subtle political world.
Then how about this? The electorate begs for his presidential candidacy, even as Ban has no mind to do so, in order to level up domestic politics characterized by corruption, incompetence and inefficiency. This won't be welcomed by most of our politicians, but the general public would certainly welcome it.