[the handshake]

Ban Ki-moon is between jobs. He gave up his post as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea some weeks ago, and though he took the oath of office yesterday, Kofi Annan gets to keep his job until the end of the year.

But this is not the sort of hiatus during which one gets to relax, sleep in and maybe hit a few museums. In celebration of the swearing-in, the South Korean Mission to the UN threw a party for Ban, and his job was to stand in one place, next to his wife in her fancy hanbok and to Ambassador Choi, shaking hands and smiling pleasantly while the rest of us gorged ourselves on hors d’oeuvres.

There had been fears prior to the event that it would turn into a mad crush, but the crowd was smaller than predicted 7mdash; maybe five or six hundred over the course of the evening — and by relegating the snacks to corner tables rather than center buffets and opening up the second floor, the Mission staff managed to keep things circulating fairly well.

Early on, in fact, we had the second floor pretty much to ourselves, completed with our own bar, so we wolfed down sushi and cheese puffs and chicken on skewers and sipped our Stolis and Johnny Walker Blacks while we had the chance. Young and I hung out by the balcony that overlooked the receiving line, trying and mostly failing to spot celebrities. (Guests included numerous UN and diplomatic bigwigs, but do you know what Jean-Marie Guéhenno looks like? Me neither.)

I made a few forays down onto the crowded first floor, weaving through the dense crowd to see what I could see. The average age was older than at most of our receptions, which I took to mean that this was a higher-level group than usual. I fell into a couple of odd conversations, including one with a woman in a shiny sweater and a big fat diamond ring who went on about how influential her husband the plastics magnate was, how many important people he’d met, how many universities he funds, and how fine a school their daughter was attending to earn her Ph.D.

Back upstairs, I found myself telling my Korea story — how we ended up there, what we did, where we lived — to a Korean gentleman who informed me that he worked for the Foreign Ministry in Seoul. When I got the chance to ask him what exactly he did there, he said that he had just finished a term as vice minister. “Vice minister of what?” I asked, confusing the title with deputy minister, which usually comes with a specific purview.

“Of the Ministry!” he said. He went on to explain that there were two vice ministers and that they took on Minister Ban’s official responsibilities when he was traveling. So here I was, talking to the ex-number-three man in the Foreign Ministry about my little language institute in Anyang. I quickly replayed our conversation in my head and was relieved to note that I hadn’t said anything embarrassing or controversial.

At another point, I found myself cornered by a reporter for Boomberg News who began pressing me for information on who really writes the speeches, and I was careful to say that the role of the speechwriters is to polish and render into better English the content provided by the diplomats, whom I described as knowledgeable and highly educated.

As the party began to wind down and the receiving line dwindled, Mr. Ahn, Chief of Operations for the Mission and the man who wields the fancy digital camera at these sorts of events, waved at me to go shake hands with Mr. Ban. “Are you sure it’s okay?” I asked, and Mr. Ahn made one of his inimitable faces, this one seeming to say, Yes, it’s okay, why not, and you shouldn’t miss this chance, and don’t be a wuss. And so I went and shook hands, feeling awkward and grinning stupidly. “축하합니다 (Congratulations),” I told him. Ambassador Choi told him in Korean that I was part of the mission staff, and Ban turned his grandfatherly smile on me, with those friendly eyes behind the ever-present glasses. Ban may not be the most telegenic man in the world, but in person he gives off considerable personal warmth. (Click here, here and here for the full-sized pictures.)

And then it was over. I moved quickly out of the way, ignoring Mrs. Ban completely, which may or may not have been a faux pas. In a little while Mr. Ban and his retinue left, and there was a giddiness among the Mission staff still standing around. After weeks of increasingly panicked preparation, they had survived. The night had gone off without a hitch, and this was the last big event they had to plan for Ban, who will soon be off our hands.

As the secretaries who had been working the door descended on plates of leftover hors d’oeuvres, someone produced a birthday cake for Mr. Lee, a long-serving staffer whose combover is a deep black that cannot possibly still be natural. We all stood there watching the candles burn down as we waited for Mr. Lee to appear from wherever he was, and he made it just in time to blow out the stumpy remainders. Then we were handed bottles of white wine that had been opened but not used, and we made our way out into the night.

[immaculate reception?]

Secretary-General-Designate Ban Ki-moon had his swearing-in ceremony (RealMedia) today before the United Nations General Assembly — on my way to lunch, I passed the president of the General Assembly, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, still in her frilly swearing-in blouse — and tonight, the South Korean Mission is throwing a bit of a party.

We initially invited a mere 1200 people to attend, and only 800 RSVPed right away. This may not sound like that many people, but keep in mind that we don’t have anything like a ballroom. Most of our receptions that draw more than a hundred people feel crowded. To cope with the throngs expected tonight, they’ll open up the second floor, which has some elegant conference rooms but a smaller total footprint than the first floor because of the soaring spaces below. There is also a party tent out in front, which unfortunately has the effect of blocking off a good chunk of the frontage space where people might otherwise have stood around.

Security is another concern. I have no idea what the plan is, or whether there’s even a plan. There were some NYPD barriers stacked up out front, so it looks like local taxpayers will be helping to keep the evening orderly.

I will definitely be attending tonight — I wouldn’t miss it — so watch this space for news on whether a grotesque fiasco is averted, who shows up for the crush, and whether the crowd is so dense that I can’t get to the hors d’oeuvre table.

[roh on the ropes]

The New York Times has an article on the dismal approval rate of South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, down to an appalling 11 percent.

The article makes the point that Roh’s unpopularity has little to do with the North Korean issue, which people across the political spectrum recognize as intractable for any political party. The primary issue is the economy, but the article also argues that the reason the economy has come so sharply into focus is that Roh has been largely successful at what he was elected to do: give greater independence to prosecutors in pursuing corruption, stop using tax collectors and intelligence agencies for political ends, and push democratization forward.

Now voters want to use their enhanced democracy to vote for someone else. They’re frustrated by high real estate and education costs, stagnating wages, high unemployment, and President Roh’s fixation despite all this on ideological issues such as collaboration during the Japanese occupation.

What will all this mean for my little corner of the South Korean government? Hard to say, except that I hope a focus on the economy will mean we can at last get some cost-of-living raises.

I do think the article is salutary, however, for making it clear just how little the internal politics of South Korea have to do with the issues Americans associate with the country. This should be a reminder that the politics in most countries is not primarily about us, but about them. Iraqi factions are almost certainly more interested in the politics of their country and region than in our midterm elections, and spikes in violence shouldn’t be read as secret coded messages to us. The Iranian election of Ahmadinejad and the Palestinian election of Hamas likewise were not gestures of defiance aimed at America, but political calculations based on an intimate concern with the politics of those respective countries. Sometimes, an election is just an election.

[why i have a job]

“Now I stand before to you deeply touched and bumbled by the honour and responsibility bestowed on me.”

You can’t make this stuff up, and I definitely don’t have to.

[it’s official]

His Excellency Mr. BAN Ki-moon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea, is now United Nations Secretary-General-designate.

Beyond the big question of how his tenure will unfold, we now face the insidery game of figuring out precisely when Minister Ban will step down from his current post — he has until January 1, when he takes his oath of office as Secretary-General — and who will replace him.

Do I have any idea? I do not. The interior working of South Korean politics are, alas, still pretty opaque to me.

[why i love my job]

I just pencil-edited Minister Ban Ki-moon’s acceptance speech for the United Nations Secretary-Generalship. I have no idea whether any of my edits and interpolations will make it into the final draft, but when Ban stands at that rostrum and delivers his speech, I’ll know that I had a hand in. It’s my tiny little sliver of history, and I’m excited about it.

A link to the speech will of course be provided once it has been delivered.

[that inscrutable asian]

The Guardian assesses the “faceless” Ban Ki-moon.

Actually, it’s a very informative article. My main quibble is in blaming low staff morale on the choice of Ban Ki-moon. No, his selection hasn’t immediately fired up the troops, but at the moment he’s working with damp wood anyway. The morale of UN staff has been low ever since the reform movement got rolling, and possibly since before then. They work for stagnant wages in crumbling, overcrowded, underheated, under-air-conditioned buildings, in a bureaucratic environment that rewards very little. Kofi Annan hasn’t managed to fix this problem, so laying their depression at Ban’s feet seems a bit unfair.

[the two koreas]

Today’s top story involving Korea ought to be Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon’s likely appointment as UN Secretary-General.

Indeed, last night’s annual reception for National Foundation Day was packed, attended by far more dignitaries, of far higher rank, than in past years. United States Ambassador John Bolton was there — Jenny remarked that he is shorter than she expected — as were the ambassadors of the other permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Japan’s ambassador, who is currently the president of the Council. The big crowd was there, I am certain, because of the news that had come out less than an hour before the reception began that South Korea would be providing the next SG. Already the appointment was having one of its desired effects: raising South Korea’s profile in the world.

At the moment, however, the big Korea news is that the North is planning a nuclear test. The timing is fairly typical of North Korea — these are the same people who managed to stage a naval incident in 2002, killing four South Korean sailors right around the climax of the World Cup hosted in South Korea. Whether today’s announcement is meant to derail Minister Ban’s appointment or merely overshadow it is unclear, but it is certainly bad news.

[ban’s the man]

So it looks like Ban is the man. In today’s final Security Council straw poll to determine who the Security Council will recommend for Secretary-General, Minister Ban Ki-moon of South Korea received only one “Discourage” vote, and received “Encourage” votes from all five permanent members — the only Security Council members with veto power.

So barring either a surprise shift in the Security Council or an even more unlikely rebellion by the General Assembly, which ultimately has the decisionmaking power — technically, the Security Council only recommends candidates, though historically they have recommended just one for an up-or-down vote by the General Assembly — Ban Ki-moon will be the next United Nations Secretary-General.

Update: New York Times says “Korean Virtually Assured of Top Job at U.N.

[because his pants say “m”]

At very long last, I think I’ve found an online copy of the video for “Muomnika?” (“뭡니까?”) by Shim Tae-yoon (심태윤) that can actually be watched by people without the South Korean citizen ID number required to log in to many Korean sites.

Go here and click on the image of the guy with the afro who’s saluting.

Once you’ve installed all the various ActiveX controls, you should see an unattractive man chatting amiably in a language you don’t understand. Be patient. He babbles for a minute or two, but then comes the video. It’s not exactly genius or anything, but it’s a helluva catchy tune, and Shim’s goofy little dance, silly afro and M-pants are what it’s really all about. That and the Korean raggamuffin rapper with the fur gloves.

Oh, and just so you know, the name of the song means “What is it?”