AT A moment when the possibility of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula has drawn the attention of the world, the election of a South Korean diplomat as secretary general of the United Nations is both ironic and a hopeful sign.
The U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved the nomination of South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon after it was forwarded by the Security Council earlier in the week. Permanent members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all had the opportunity to veto him but did not. On Jan. 1 Mr. Ban will succeed Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who has served two five-year terms.
Mr. Annan's record as head of the organization has been mixed. He brought dignity and gravity to the post, and called quiet attention to the long-term problems of his continent of origin, Africa. These nagging, unresolved issues include economic underdevelopment as well as lags in health, education, measures to deal with corruption, and the quality of governance. Mr. Annan's tenure was marred by what the United States considers to be insufficient U.N. reforms, underlined by the Iraq oil-for-food scandals which touched even Mr. Annan's son.
Mr. Ban, 62, was judged to be the best qualified of the candidates for the position from Asia, the continent that most U.N. members agreed should provide the secretary general this time. He seems, all in all, to be well prepared for the responsibilities he is about to assume.
There are two potential problems, however.
Mr. Ban is from South Korea, and how the world contends with North Korea's nuclear aspirations is one of the most pressing issues before the United Nations. His long experience as a diplomat dealing with that issue and his language skills could be advantages.
Yet to play a useful role he will have to divorce himself from his previous post representing South Korea. He says he will visit North Korea as secretary general, an excellent step in heightening U.N. engagement with the Pyongyang authorities.
Nation of origin has always been an issue for a U.N. secretary general. To some degree they have been chosen from countries with few foreign policy entanglements - Norway, Burma, Peru, and Ghana, for example.
When Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt was secretary general he was constrained in dealing with some problems, such as Somalia, by his identification with the policies of his homeland. The Somalis called the U.N. radio station there "The Voice of the Pharaoh."
Mr. Ban's other problem could be the perception of close relations with the United States. For America, that could be an advantage. It remains to be seen whether other U.N. members will hold it against him.
In any case, he will start work in the new year with a clean slate and a full agenda. He will be a very important player in world affairs for the next five years and probably for the next 10. President Bush should establish close personal and working relations with him as soon as possible.