Ban Ki-moon arrived in South Korea less than 5 days ago but he’s been making appearances at breakneck speed. Ban was seen wearing an apron and feeding porridge to a bedridden, elderly woman in a nursing home. He then headed to a facility set up to combat avian influenza, where he changed into a full-body contamination suit. Back in Seoul, Ban visited the National Cemetery where he paid his respects to South Korea’s deceased presidents. Wherever he went, Ban was surrounded by a camera crew and the clicking sound of camera shutters. He has invited ridicule, however, because he has gone overboard staging such blatant photo ops. As a newcomer to politics, Ban needs prepping, coaching and some hand-holding to connect with everyday citizens.  He faces an uphill battle to win over younger voters in South Korea, as they have turned against him and support his opponents instead.

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Ban Ki-moon hasn’t been in South Korea for a week yet.  January 14th was only his second day in the country and he hadn’t yet gotten over his jet lag.  However, Ban insisted on visiting a nursing home in Eumseong, his hometown in the province of north Choongchung.  The nursing home is run by Catholic nuns and is part of a larger facility catering to the homeless, troubled youths and those with physical and mental disabilities.  Ban volunteered to feed some porridge to an elderly, bedridden woman.  Needless to say, Ban was photographed in the act and the clicking sound of camera shutters resounded throughout the nursing home.

Soon, this photo became a source of huge controversy for Ban — Ban is wearing an apron-like dress. Critics claimed the dress should have been worn by the elderly woman being fed, not Ban.  The dress is in fact an over-sized adult  napkin that you wear like a baby burp cloth.  But it’s for the one being fed, not for the feeder.  What probably happened is Ban mistook the burp cloth for an apron — or the nun pictured above, afraid that Ban would drop porridge on his suit, offered it to Ban as an apron.  You can see that Ban is dressed to the hilt for the occasion, wearing his pressed dress shirt and charcoal suit beneath the burp cloth.  Ban’s camp responded that he merely followed the instructions of the nun in charge of his visit.

But the controversy did not die down.  It actually began to grow when another aspect of Ban’s botched photo op was pointed out.  Ban was feeding an elderly woman who is lying flat on her back.  Several nurses and home health care workers claimed that this is dangerous — the proper procedure is to prop up the patient and then feed.  Feeding bedridden patients lying down could lead to choking incidents, as the food gets stuck in the air passageway. Health care providers pointed out that elderly patients typically suffer from lack of moisture in their body cavities, resulting in emergency situations.  In fact, this is no laughing matter as choking deaths are quite common in nursing homes and hospice care facilities; there are even attorneys who specialize in this type of negligent deaths.  Left-leaning newspaper Hankyoreh made fun of how Ban spent his first weekend in South Korea, force-feeding and nearly suffocating an elderly patient in a staged appearance.

Ban then headed to a facility set up to stop the spread of avian influenza in South Korea.   As many are aware, South Korea began importing eggs from the U.S. recently because some 26 million chickens were lost to avian influenza in 2016.   About a third (1/3) of egg-laying hens became infected by the H5N6 strain of this bird flu and had to be slaughtered, resulting in an economic loss of $1.2 billion.  At the facility, Ban changed into a whole-body garment to protect himself from infectious  agents.  He was then seen spraying water on truck parts suspected of contamination.  However, critics pointed out that Ban did not wear a mask or face shield and left himself and his entourage exposed to biological agents.

Ban trying his hand at disinfection. YT screen linked to source.

When the above picture appeared, Ban’s critics seized the moment.  Kim Young-joo is a prominent legislator and a member of the leadership council of the Korean Democratic Party (더불어민주당).  This is the same party which expects to back either Moon Jae-in or Lee Jae-myung as its candidate to run against Ban.  In a series of tweets, Kim attacked Ban for “showing up at the facility with a large entourage for a photo op.”

Here’s what Kim said:  “I need to point something out to former U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.  The facility you visited is a restricted area that’s off limits to everyone except for those engaged in disinfection and decontamination.  Bringing visitors and vehicles interferes with the operation of the facility and is an enormous distraction.  It can actually spread avian influenza.  That’s why those of us who belong to livestock and fishery committees can’t even visit that site!”

This all happened in a few hour span, as Ban kept a hectic schedule and made appearances at breakneck speed.  In fact, the day before, he had just visited the National Cemetery in Seoul to pay his respects to deceased presidents — South Korea’s 4 past presidents are buried at the National Cemetery:  Rhee Syng-man, Park Chung-hee, Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam.  [There are 2 other deceased presidents who did not wish to be buried there, however; their grave sites are elsewhere.]

After the incense and bowing ceremony, Ban stopped to sign the guest book.  He decided to leave a rather lengthy note, which reads as follows:  “I have come home after I, as the U.N. secretary-general, strove for world peace, security and development over the last decade … I will do my best, though my capability is limited, to help the Republic of Korea make a great leap forward.”  This is not translated very well by Yonhap News; Ban is actually a very fine writer in Korean language.  Nonetheless, this note created another unnecessary controversy for Ban.

The problem here was not what Ban wrote but how he transcribed it.  When Ban crouched to write the note, some of the reporters tagging along gave him distance so that he could concentrate and finish writing.  However, some peeked to see what he was writing.  They discovered that Ban was copying the message word for word from a small cheat sheet.  He had apparently brought a computer print-out of what he intended to write in the guestbook.  To many Koreans, this resembled a crib note that students bring to cheat on exams.  When Ban noticed he was being watched intently, he furtively covered the crib sheet with his right sleeve.  Then he removed it entirely before finishing his last sentence.

Some argued, “what’s wrong with Ban bringing a cheat sheet to sign the guest book?”  There is nothing wrong, actually.  But he became ill at ease when reporters noticed the crib note and began zooming in to see the content.  This is essentially the same point which Western observers have made over the years about Ban:  his lack of “intellectual agility” and inability to multitask.  As even Ban’s top adviser admitted, “he is very weak on thinking on his feet.  That’s not his thing.”  That seems to apply to Ban’s aspiration to become South Korea’s next president as well — Ban is a career diplomat and a newcomer to politics.  He is by no means a natural politician. To connect with everyday citizens, Ban needs to be prepped and coached, sometimes well in advance of the encounter.

To that end, some people are holding Ban’s hands, literally.  Reporters discovered that while Ban was going through the ceremony, his pair of white gloves was stuck between the pages of the guest book — they were being heated by hand-warming hot packs, as shown below.

Ban’s handlers wanted his hands to be warm so he could sign the guest book with ease.  Just like his other appearances, the ceremony was planned meticulously by handlers so Ban could pull it off without a hitch.

By going overboard with photo ops, however, Ban has attracted derision and ridicule from even those who regard him favorably.  Many are floored that he would go to this length to make an impression.  That he is otherwise a thoughtful and deliberate person does not seem to allay gnawing fears that he may not fare well in the rough and tumble world of political campaigns.

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