UNITED NATIONS—Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula is one of the most serious issues facing the world because the impact of North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons would be far greater than the casualties in Syria and other conflicts.
The U.N. chief said in an interview with The Associated Press that for almost 10 years as secretary-general, and before as South Korea’s foreign minister, he tried with “all my efforts … to talk with North Koreans in any way I can to promote peace and security and reconciliation between the South and the North.”
“But I regret to tell you that it has not been materialized because of many different situations, mainly caused by North Koreans’ provocative actions,” Ban said.
Now, he said, “we are coming to almost this confrontational situation” following the North’s fifth nuclear test on Friday and its launch of more than 20 ballistic missiles.
“I do not simply understand why they are continuing like this,” he told reporters earlier. “Of course, as one of the Korean citizens and as secretary-general, I am deeply, deeply concerned and sad about this kind of continuing situation.”
Ban told AP the answer should be for North Korea to change its attitudes, reverse course, work with the international community which is calling for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and respect globally recognized international rules and principles.
But getting North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, to do that, he said, is a problem “because he’s known as an unpredictable person in his behavior.”
Ban expressed hope that after his second five-year term ends on Dec. 31 his successor will have as much interest and commitment as he has had to address the Korean issue.
“Reducing tension on the Korean peninsula is one of the most serious issues in the world,” Ban said.
He said the international community only talks about conflicts like Syria and South Sudan when people are killed.
But if anything unpredictable happens with North Korea, “the impact with be far, far greater than those conflicts in Syria and elsewhere because we are now talking about nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and an unpredictable regime,” Ban said. “That’s a problem now.”
The secretary-general said the change in U.S. administration after the November election may also lead to change in how the new president addresses the Korean issue. But he said the other key players in six-party nuclear disarmament talks which North Korea quit in 2009 — China, Russia, Japan and South Korea — will remain the same.
Ban said he has been spending a lot of time and energy on the reunification of Cyprus, the only other divided country besides the Korean peninsula.
Talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, facilitated by the U.N., are “moving smoothly and well,” Ban said, and he’s hoping that an agreement on reunifying the divided Mediterranean island may happen before his term ends.
He also pointed to the six-decade-old conflict in Colombia which is now being resolved, and where the U.N. is set to play a role in implementing the cease-fire agreement.
“Now watching all these long, longstanding crises in Colombia and Cyprus are now coming closer to a resolution, I feel much more sorry and regretful that something which is relating to my own home country is not happening — even getting more and more difficult situation,” Ban said.
Speaking with some frustration, he said that when it comes to the Korean peninsula, the secretary-general has no mandate from either the U.N. Security Council or the General Assembly, and he has not been able to appoint a special envoy or a special adviser on Korean issues.
“First of all, North Korea did not want it, and the Security Council is more or less divided on Korean issues,” Ban said, explaining that the council couldn’t even agree on a press statement after some missile launches.
The secretary-general was asked whether growing international opposition to the North’s testing, which is improving its ability to deliver nuclear weapons, might generate enough support now in the 193-member General Assembly where there are no vetoes to do something on the Korean issue.
“That may be one my successor may try to consider,” Ban replied.
North Korea has canceled several planned visits by the secretary-general at the last minute, and under current circumstances he doesn’t see another opportunity before his term ends.
“I regret that I have not been able to contribute as much as I had hoped at the beginning of my term as secretary-general,” Ban said. “But as a private citizen, if there is an opportunity, I will spare no effort.”