Could North Korea's Nuke Test Threaten the U.N. Frontrunner?

TIME talks to South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, the leading candidate to become the next U.N. Secretary General, about Pyongyang's provocations.

On Monday, the United Nations Security Council holds its final vote to elect a successor to Secretary General Kofi Annan, an election South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon is widely expected to win. Ban talked with TIME'S Jennifer Veale at his official residence in Seoul about his candidacy, North Korea's latest provocations and what he can bring to one of the world's toughest jobs.

How do you feel about North Korea's recent nuclear pledge? Do you think it will affect your candidacy or your ability as Secretary General to deal with Pyongyang?
Officially and personally, I am very troubled by North Korea's announcement that they would go ahead with a nuclear test. I hope this situation will not cause any problems to my current candidacy and I hope that member states of the United Nations will understand the situation. There are two possibilities: [that the tests are] a negotiating ploy, or a real attempt at nuclear testing. We are taking the necessary measures on both possibilities. I've already discussed this matter with [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and in two hours I'm going to have a telephone discussion with the Japanese Foreign Minister. North Korea must stop these kinds of negative announcements, and they should stop if they have any plans [to actually conduct a nuclear test]. They have made a firm commitment to a de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula contained in the joint statement adopted in September last year. This is a serous breach of that commitment, to the whole Korean nation—both North and South—and the whole international community. We will take necessary diplomatic measures, as much as we can.

As a South Korean Secretary General, will it be more difficult for you to deal with North Korea, or for other countries to trust your impartiality and ability to deal with North Korea?
As I've gained a deeper experience and understanding into this complex issue, I'll be in a much better position as secretary general than as South Korean Foreign Minister to deal with inter-Korean relations. Having known all the history and background and having known people in both the South and North, I can do a much better job [on the North Korean issue] than any other person. Even though I am just a candidate at this time, should I be elected I'll take very seriously what kind of role I can play to deal with this matter.

How will you respond as South Korea's Foreign Minister to Pyongyang's latest provocation?
We've already made strong statements that North Korea should stop these provocative activities and they should abide by Security Council resolution 1695. This is a total breach of the commitment they made in the joint declaration for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula adopted in 1992, a declaration I helped negotiate. This is a total breach of that commitment—a commitment to the whole nation and the whole international community. Should they go ahead, despite our appeals, North Korea should be entirely responsible for all consequences coming from their nuclear test.

Is a nuclear test likely?
I'm not sure. We are taking it very seriously.

How do you respond to criticism that under your watch as foreign minister, South Korea's relations with Japan, the U.S., North Korea and China have all worsened? I've been frustrated by the negative perception that our relationships with Japan and the U.S. have not been smooth, although I believe we've developed a very close relationship with China and Russia. With the U.S, we've been maintaining an excellent relationship during the last fifty years; I think our relationship is still very sound and healthy. People only have negative perceptions at this time. People should understand we are going through a very important transformation period, a realignment in our relationship. This transformation or realignment comes from both countries, the U.S. and South Korea. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has been realigning all their global forces, as part of a Global Posture Review, known as a GPR. That has affected Korea too, and we have agreed to it; it does not undermine the security situation on the Korean peninsula. We've agreed to allow strategic flexibility, while we made it quite clear the Korean government would not like to be involved in any regional conflict where South Korean people and government would not want regional conflict. We've agreed to partial withdrawal of American forces and we've agreed to the relocation of all American bases into two major hubs. These have been all important changes. Considering South Korea's political and democratic maturity and economic development, we really want to have a more mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and South Korea. But I think people have had different feelings during this important process, which has caused certain negative perceptions.

In the case of Japan, this is mainly because of the insincere Japanese attitude toward past history issues. Japan occupied Korea for 35 years. South Korean people—all Korean people—can never forget this. Our leadership has agreed that we should work toward a future-oriented relationship regardless of what happened in the past. But repeated visits by Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A war criminals are honored, are disrespectful to South Koreans and other East Asian countries suppressed and oppressed by Japanese colonialism. They should have cared much more, should have been more thoughtful of neighboring countries. They should have been able to gain the trust and confidence of neighboring countries. This is the main reason why it's unfair for any responsibility to be levied on South Korea for the strained relationship between Korea and Japan. We are ready to have a committed and improved relationship with Japan. We're looking forward to this summit meeting which will be held next Monday.

Why do you want to be Secretary General?
Personally and officially, Korean people have a longstanding faith in the United Nations. If you look at the special ties Korea has had with the United Nations since independence, you'll easily understand what kind of attachment the Korean people have. Now, as a fully democratic, politically mature and economically developed [country], Korea wants to do more for the UN. That's why my government has nominated me as a candidate. I'm a career diplomat who has served our country and the international community for the last 37 years. I'm very much committed.

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