NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that his greatest achievement at the helm of the world’s biggest international organization was last year’s climate change accord in Paris, and he expressed open frustration that Republicans in the U.S. continue to obstruct President Obama and to politicize the subject.
“The debate on science and the debate on politics as far as climate change is concerned is over,” Mr. Ban told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview. “Still, the Republican Party, they are not convinced.
“There should be no political consideration on this,” he said. “There should be no room for politics to get involved.”
Mr. Ban, who has been secretary-general for a decade and is nearing the end of his tenure, made the comments in a wide-ranging interview on topics including Syria’s civil war and the mounting threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
The South Korean native at one point stressed that North Korea’s potential use of nuclear weapons now represents a graver danger to humanity and the international order than any other single conflict raging around the world.
“We are talking about nuclear bombs,” he said. “Whatever we see, a conflict in Syria or South Sudan or Central African Republic or elsewhere, they do not have any nuclear weapons. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and they’ve tested [them] five times successfully.
“They have [also] launched short- and midrange ballistic missiles,” Mr. Ban said. “So, it seems that they are in the process of making smaller, lighter, longer-range ballistic missiles where they can have this nuclear warhead on top.
“They publicly, have openly said that their target is to strike the United States with much lighter, longer-range ballistic missiles,” he said. “This is quite worrying, a very worrying situation.”
But the secretary-general stressed that the window remains open for a diplomatic solution with Pyongyang.
While China and the U.S. are widely seen to be on opposing ends of the North Korea crisis, Mr. Ban said progress made by Beijing and Washington on other fronts — specifically on climate change initiatives — should serve as an impetus for the two powers to work together on defusing the North Korea threat.
China is Pyongyang’s main ally and financial backer, and U.S. officials have for years called on Beijing to take a stronger role in discouraging provocations from Pyongyang. After heated negotiations early this year, Beijing joined with Washington on the U.N. Security Council in adopting expanded economic sanctions against North Korea, with the goal of limiting Pyongyang’s ability to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities.
“China understands the seriousness and urgency of addressing the North Korean issue,” Mr. Ban said Thursday evening.
He said Chinese and U.S. diplomats are again in deep negotiations at the Security Council level over how best to respond to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear weapon test carried out this month.
“It’s mainly the United States and China negotiating at this time what kind of measures should be taken,” he said, “in close consultation with the Republic of Korea and also Japan.”
Asked whether the Security Council should impose even more biting sanctions, Mr. Ban said, “At this time, the trend or direction should be [toward] measures which can [send] a tougher, clear message to North Korea.”
A diplomat’s legacy
The 72-year-old Mr. Ban has won praise for pushing world leaders to cut last year’s climate change deal. Although it has not been fully ratified, the agreement is widely regarded to be a historic step toward coordinating more nations than ever to engage in dramatic reductions of carbon dioxide emissions.
But Mr. Ban has also been lauded by many for his energetic defense of human rights, often publicly calling out nations where abuses are occurring and shaming leaders for turning a blind eye to oppressed people around the world.
Still, critics say the secretary-general’s notoriously low-key style has sometimes made his successes hard to measure. Some also note that he has presided over the United Nations at a time when conflicts raging around the world have spawned the most refugees in decades — particularly as a result of the multifront civil war that has gripped Syria.
Mr. Ban told The Times that he feels regret over the horror of Syria’s war — that it has been allowed to carry on for so long. He said the conflict has been extremely difficult to overcome because of a kind of “perfect storm” of circumstances that precipitated and underpinned the violence.
He lamented that divisions have played inside Syria over the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the region’s national governments have remained divided and world powers have done the same on the U.N. Security Council.
He praised Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for continuing to push for a diplomatic solution. “We must not waste valuable time,” Mr. Ban said, adding that outside powers must increase pressure to ensure that U.N.-backed humanitarian aid can reach civilians in the war zone.
On a more personal front, Mr. Ban pushed back against criticism about his low-key persona.
“I am not a perfect person,” he said. “I think I have done, in my own authentic and determined way, to contribute to world peace and human rights,” he said. “I’ve been speaking out loud and clear whenever I saw injustice and abuse of human rights. I have been speaking out.”
What next for Mr. Ban?
With the secretary-general slated to step down at the end of the year, talk has been widespread over what he will do next. Many believe he will emerge as a leading candidate for president back home. South Koreans vote in December 2017, and President Park Geun-hye is limited by law to a single term in office.
Mr. Ban has become more outspoken as his term winds down, saying too many world leaders have failed to make the welfare of their citizens a priority and calling for institutional reforms to make the United Nations itself a more forceful voice in world affairs.
He told The Associated Press recently that too many leaders are focused on getting elected “by whatever means.” Once elected, he said, such leaders “rule over people, and they are mostly corrupted, and they do not respect the voices of the people.”
Mr. Ban also has called into question the requirement that so many issues that come before the General Assembly and the Security Council require a unanimous consensus or supermajority before a decision can be made.
His proposal to set a goal of resettling 10 percent of the world’s refugees annually was watered down in the run-up to next week’s annual General Assembly gathering because of objections from a small number of states, human rights groups say.
Mr. Ban also leaves as an unusually spirited and uncertain race has broken out over his successor.
The General Assembly and Security Council will — through a closed-door voting process during the coming weeks — choose a new secretary-general to replace Mr. Ban in January.
Twelve candidates have announced their interest in the position, and straw polls suggest that Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal who now serves as the top U.N. official dealing with the refugee crisis, is the early leader.
However, feminist groups have for several years been lobbying for the first female secretary-general, and Mr. Ban recently joined U.S. and British diplomats in saying his replacement should be a woman.
Six of those running are women. Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former prime minister and head of the U.N. Development Project, along with Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister and Mr. Ban’s former chief of staff, are said to be among the front-runners.
On Thursday evening, the secretary-general said the selection process should play out without his influence and that he hopes only that the “best possible person” is selected.
But he added that he has fought tirelessly for “gender empowerment” during his time as secretary-general.
“Speaking plainly, half of the world’s population, they are women. But most of the potential of women has not been fully explored or utilized,” he said. “Of the many resources around the world, the least-utilized resource is women and women empowerment.”