NEW YORK | U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that he is making personal efforts to try to free two U.S. journalists imprisoned in North Korea and that he played a role in the release last month of another jailed journalist in Iran.
“I have taken my own effort to facilitate any release of these American journalists, but I have not heard anything,” he told The Washington Times on Sunday. “You can understand my frustration.”
The two women — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — were sentenced earlier this month to 12 years of hard labor after they were arrested near the China-North Korea border in March.
U.S. and other efforts to free them have so far failed, and the two appear to have become victims of the deterioration in relations between North Korea and much of the rest of the world since the North carried out a second nuclear test and fired off a ballistic missile.
“I am doing all I can do,” said Mr. Ban, who served as South Korea’s foreign minister before becoming the first Asian U.N. secretary-general since U Thant of Burma served, from 1961 to 1971.
Mr. Ban, who is known for his reticence, said he worked similarly behind the scenes to help win freedom for Roxana Saberi.
The Iranian-American journalist was sentenced to an eight-year prison term for espionage, but the term was reduced to a two-year suspended sentence and she was allowed to leave Iran in May.
Mr. Ban said he had “spoken quite frankly” about the case to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when they were both in Geneva in April. “I feel a sense of responsibility to this,” he said.
The soft-spoken diplomat, in a wide-ranging interview with The Times, lashed out — albeit gently — at critics who say he has not been particularly successful or inspiring in his first 30 months on the job.
Tuesday marks the midpoint of his five-year term at the helm of the world body, and that milestone has generated a number of harsh assessments.
Foreign Policy magazine, for example, called him “the world’s most dangerous Korean.”
Advocacy and relief groups, foreign governments and editorial writers alike have chided him for not making sufficient use of his bully pulpit to influence world affairs.
Many say his cautious demeanor has allowed humanitarian crises in places like Zimbabwe, the Darfur region of Sudan, North Korea and Myanmar to fester and become worse.
Mr. Ban said he is doing a lot more than may appear from the outside.
“Normally, any national leaders can just speak out,” he said, relaxing slightly in the reception hall of his Sutton Place residence in New York. “I normally don’t do that for the purpose of keeping some confidence and trust with someone. I’m not a national leader, where you have a very clear-cut national policy. As secretary-general, I have to look at all the member states’ interests.”
Mr. Ban, casually attired in a green-checked shirt and pale beige jacket, indicated that he would visit Myanmar later this week.
He said he had received an invitation to meet with the country’s senior military leader, Gen. Than Shwe, but had received no commitment from the ruling junta to allow him to visit the nation’s most prominent dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi.
“You cannot say that quiet diplomacy is always effective,” Mr. Ban said. “Sometimes public diplomacy isn’t all that effective. You have to mix both, strike a balance.”
Asked if he would seek a second five-year term, Mr. Ban indicated he has been too busy to give the matter much thought.
“I am not a politician. I have seen many political leaders from Day One looking at [winning] their second term. I am not that type of person,” he said.
“If they think I need to serve, then I will be quite happy,” he said, referring to the world body’s 192 member states and brushing aside the suggestion that he would rather work on his golf game.
“I am a public servant,” he said.