Former United Nations Secretary-General Withdraws from Presidential Race

Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced his withdrawal as a candidate for the upcoming presidential race in South Korea during a press conference at the National Assembly on February 1.

The announcement came as a surprise to many South Koreans, even those within Ban’s campaign staff.

“No one [within the campaign] knew about his intentions to withdraw from the race except for former Ambassador to the UN Kim-Sook, the spokesperson, and few key confidants,” said an anonymous source within Ban’s campaign. “[The staff] only realized after watching the press conference.”

Upon his arrival to South Korea on January 12, Ban implied his intentions to run for the presidency. Yet, his road to a prospective candidacy faced significant roadblocks even before it kicked off.

On December 24, Korean outlet Sisa Press exclusively reported that Ban allegedly received $200,000 in bribes as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and an additional $30,000 as UN Secretary General in 2007, both from a former CEO of a shoemaking factory. Earlier this month, U.S. prosecutors also charged Ban’s younger brother and nephew on a separate instance of bribery over real estate.

The former UN Secretary General also faced difficulties clarifying his position on “comfort women,” an unresolved contention between Korea and Japan over forced sex slaves during World War II. As UN Secretary General, Ban initially lauded the agreement South Korea and Japan struck in December 2015 on the issue. Korean journalists continued to press him to clarify his position as he began his presidential campaign, and his frustration erupted when a recording device inadvertently caught Ban deriding those journalists.

Because Ban spent 10 years away from his home nation, the campaign focused on portraying him as an average Korean citizen and getting rid of his image as an international elite. However, the campaign tactics only reinforced an aristocratic image. Reports indicated that his campaign requested presidential-level protocol for his return to South Korea and showed him struggling to acquire a subway ticket from a vending machine.

These series of allegations and gaffes may have influenced Ban to drop out of the race, but he described them as fake news and rumors that damaged him, his family, and the United Nations. He also attributed the current political climate to his withdrawal.

“Each politician had his or her own agenda,” explained Ban in an interview with Hangook Ilbo. “They have spoken about fulfilling public service, but most of them were unable to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.”

Lacking a clear political identity also proved to be detrimental for Ban’s race. Most importantly, he was unable to find a political party that matched his persona. The main opposition liberal Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) was already set on putting its former party leader Moon Jae-in on its ticket. The conservatives split into two factions after the ruling New Frontier Party (NFP) faced an exodus of 29 lawmakers who refused to support President Park Geun-hye. Describing himself as a “progressive conservative,” Ban also left room to join the moderate liberal People’s Party or create his own party.

A stagnant popularity also indicated that Ban’s chance of winning was very slim, despite his status as a frontrunner among conservative candidates. The public continued to select MPK as their favorite party, and Ban was never able to surpass Moon’s support rate. According to polling agency RealMeter, Ban started with a 22.2 percent support rate when he arrived in Korea, but it continued to plummet afterwards.

Having lost the most viable candidate for the upcoming election this year, the conservatives face difficult decisions of endorsing someone from a very limited pool while Moon continues to increase his lead. Potential contenders for the conservative ticket include Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn for the NFP and Representative Yoo Seong-min for the newly-created Bareun Party.