Will the UN’s Ban Ki-moon Run for President of South Korea?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited his home country of South Korea last week, and all the buzz was about his future plans. As the world's top diplomat enters the final six months of his term at the UN, he will look back on a long career. But that career may not be over just yet. There has been significant speculation that Ban will run for the South Korean presidency in 2017.

When asked about his political ambitions, the former South Korean foreign minister has sometimes denied a potential bid, and sometimes dodged the question. Even if the Secretary-General isn't ready to launch his campaign, at least publicly, he has been included in several South Korean presidential polls — and has come out as a leading contender.

Politics is all About Timing

Politics is often about being in the right place at the right time. Ban Ki-moon certainly finds himself in this position. His term as Secretary-General ends in December 2016, and the Korean presidential elections will be held in December 2017. This is the perfect window for Ban to launch a presidential bid. Furthermore, the incumbent president, Park Geun-hye, is constitutionally barred from seeking a second five-year term, so it will be an open race.

Major Parties: Ban's Pick

Ban could run as either major party's presidential candidate, and is being courted by both sides. He has past links with the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, but served as foreign minister under President Roh Moo-hyun of the main progressive party (now called the Minjoo Party of Korea). Thus, he could choose to run for whichever party presented him with the best possibility of victory. No matter which party he ran for, Ban would face weakened opponents in the nomination races. There is no obvious successor to Park Geun-hye in the Saenuri ranks, and the opposition politicians are severely divided, tarnished by factionalism and splits.

Ban's Potential Rivals in the Saenuri Party

Ban has connections with the ruling Saenuri Party, and his path to the nomination could be clearer than if he ran to be the main opposition's presidential candidate. However, the Saenuri Party will have been in power in the presidential office for 10 years by 2017—he may face an electorate that seeks change.

The recent legislative elections dimmed the prospects of many of the Saenuri Party's big presidential names. Former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon lost in his bid for Seoul's Jongno constituency. The loss was high profile for a number of reasons. First, Oh was a former mayor with known presidential ambitions. Second, Jongno is a highly symbolic constituency that contains the presidential office and has been represented by past presidents. It is always closely watched during legislative elections.

Former Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung had also been widely expected to run for the presidential nomination. However, he was forced to resign as chairman after leading the ruling party to an historic loss in the 2016 legislative elections. While he hasn't ruled out a presidential run, his odds have certainly worsened.

Ban's Potential Rivals in the Main Opposition Minjoo Party of Korea

The Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) was strengthened in the recent legislative elections, becoming the largest party. Former leader Moon Jae-in is oft touted as a future president, but factional strife during his leadership of MPK could harm him. Furthermore, he had said he would only run in 2017 if the MPK won in its stronghold Honam region in the 2016 legislative elections. However, it largely lost out to the minor opposition People's Party in this region.

Interim MPK Chairman Kim Chong-in could run as well. The former Park Geun-hye advisor-turned-opposition politician led the party successfully in the recent elections, and could use that as a springboard to a presidential run.

Incumbent Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon could also run. The mayoralty of the capital city has often been seen as a springboard to higher office, as was the case with Park Geun-hye's predecessor as president, Lee Myung-bak. Park Won-soon would be a strong contender, untouched by the factional strife of recent years.

Ban's Potential Pitch: The North Korea Issue

No issue looms larger in South Korean politics than inter-Korean relations. The endless provocations from North Korea, and subsequent sanctions from the international community, are tiring the South Korean public. Sanctions have not deterred North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and there may be calls for a more diplomatic approach. Ban Ki-moon's status as a global statesman will surely help him if he chooses to run for president.

As Secretary-General, Ban has reached out to Pyongyang, sending senior envoys and meeting with North Korean leadership. He was scheduled to visit the Kaesong industrial complex, an industrial park that employed North Korean workers for South Korean companies, and acted as a symbol of inter-Korean co-operation. However, Kim Jong-un cancelled the visit.

While Ban's tenure as the world's top diplomat may be politically beneficial, his record of diplomacy with the North goes back to his days as foreign minister. His tenure was during the "Sunshine Policy Era" of aid and engagement with the North, and the Kaesong industrial complex opened during his time as minister.

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating, the South Korean public may be looking for a presidential candidate with the unmatched diplomatic credentials of Ban.

Time to Decide

Polls show that Ban would have a good shot at winning should he run, and the recent elections have made the Saenuri field easier if he chooses to run for the ruling camp. Meanwhile, his time in the Roh administration and his tenure at the UN could endear him to opposition voters.

There is one wild-card in the next presidential race that deserves mention: Ahn Cheol-soo, co-chairman of the minor opposition People's Party, who ran in the 2012 presidential race and led his party to become a major force in the National Assembly in 2016. If he enters the race, it could transform the dynamics between the two main candidates for president, from the Saenuri and Minjoo parties.

Furthermore, Ban may want to avoid the rough and tumble of South Korean politics, preserving his stellar image with the South Korean people, and enjoy retirement. Whatever he decides, the polling industry has not heeded his requests to stop including his name in surveys, and the speculation will not end — not until he firmly enters retirement, or he announces his bid for President of the Republic of Korea.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Trevor Fairlie

Trevor Fairlie is former Junior Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, specializing in Trade, Investment and Innovation. He is a current 2019 JD Candidate at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.

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