When Ban Ki Moon received word last week that North Korea might be planning to test a nuclear device, he had reason to be anxious. As South Korea's Foreign Minister, Ban is a key player in the six-party talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear program. A test would scuttle those talks and likely lead to a renewed U.S. push for sanctions against North Korea. And so in the middle of Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, Ban, 62, was on the phone to his counterparts in Moscow, Beijing, Washington and Tokyo, building a response to the North Korean announcement. Speaking to TIME between calls, Ban said he was "much worried and troubled" about the possibility of a nuclear test. That's in part because of the impact it could have on the job he may be about to land: Secretary-General of the United Nations. "I hope this situation will not cause any problems to my current candidacy," he says.
With the 192-nation General Assembly likely to vote on the next head of the U.N. this week, Ban has emerged as the clear favorite to replace outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan. If Ban gets the job, he'll have to get used to managing problems beyond the Korean peninsula. With the world confronting conflicts from Darfur to Afghanistan, many people expect the Secretary-General to be a global avatar of peace, as Annan in his best moments sought to be. Just as daunting is the challenge of cleaning house at the U.N., which has been dogged for years by mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption--crystallized in the oil-for-food scandal that tarnished Annan's tenure. Add to that the task of refereeing between the U.S. and countries like Russia and China, which are determined to chart their own course, and you get an idea why Annan calls it "the most impossible job in the world." "It would help if the next Secretary-General was a brilliant, compelling leader," says a U.N. official. "But to actually be chosen for the job, the candidate must be a person who offends no one."
Inoffensiveness is Ban's outstanding quality. He has spent 36 years as a diplomat, almost all of them outside the spotlight. His peers praise his understated "Confucian approach," as one Chinese expert puts it, but some wonder whether Ban has the steel to play a leading role on the international stage--a question that's been sharpened by North Korea's latest provocation. "This will be the first time he's ever been his own boss," says Peter Beck, the Seoul-based director of the International Crisis Group's Northeast Asia project. "Can he really assert himself and stand up to governments that act contrary to the U.N.?" His allies say that it's a mistake to assume that Ban is as diffident as he might sometimes appear. "It's a typical Oriental style," says Yoon Young Kwan, Ban's predecessor as South Korean Foreign Minister. "He is soft-spoken, but inside he has a strong view and strong motivation."