While many regard him as a hero, Ban Ki-moon is not without critics and even enemies in South Korea. During his ‘homecoming parade’ from the airport to his residence, Ban said he would “breathe the same air with the everyday citizens” of South Korea.  However, it turns out that Ban wanted a bit more pomp and circumstance and VIP treatment for his homecoming than the situation allowed. It’s no surprise, then, that Ban, while mobbed by well-wishers, also attracted protesters. In fact, Ban’s critics are focusing on photo ops that were so obviously staged to make him appear more personable and gregarious than he actually is. For them, Ban’s nickname, “slippery eel,” is particularly apropos given his tendency to talk out of both sides of his mouth. The younger generation and the Korean left are not terribly enthused by Ban’s impending presidential bid.


Ban Ki Moon returned to South Korea on January 12th, having finished his two terms as secretary general of the U.N.  He was met by a throng of reporters, well-wishers and even protesters when he landed at the Incheon International Airport.  We are talking about this kind of throng here.

Many are reporters who wanted to be the first to get words from Ban regarding his presidential bid.   The former U.N. Chief is still not officially a candidate.   In fact, he doesn’t even have a party nor any campaign staff as of yet.  It is expected, though, that he will soon declare his candidacy and, once he does, he will quickly mobilize to turn himself into a viable candidate.

Upon clearing airport customs and entering the reception area, Ban held a short briefing and read a prepared statement.  Some of his supporters chanted his name.  Some exclaimed, “That’s right” or “Right on!” after he finished each sentence.  Some, confident that he would soon declare his candidacy, held placards reading, “Leadership Change,” “Tolerant Leadership,”  and “We Believe in You.”

Ban said that he is now a “civilian” and “regular citizen” of South Korea.  He promised he would “breathe with the everyday citizens [of South Korea].”  In other words, he would breathe the same air as everyone else in South Korea.   In the class-conscious milieu of South Korea, this “rubbing shoulders with the regular guy” routine (서민 행보) is almost de rigueur for all candidates during campaigns.  But it is particularly necessary for Ban, who is seen by Koreans as having led a rather rarefied existence as U.N. secretary general.

Ban pressing the flesh and connecting with the store clerk.

Ban’s critics are many, however, and there were some at the airport.  Some held signs with his pejorative nickname, “Slippery Eel (기름장어).”  Another sign read, “Ban Ki Moon is an opportunist.  We will not be fooled.”  These are mostly young people who identify strongly with Ban’s opponents, Moon Jae-in and Lee Jae-myung.  One student held a sign that read, “We are ashamed of Ban Ki-moon.”  This is in reference to negative reviews of Ban’s tenure by Western periodicals such as the Economist and Foreign Policy.  Many in South Korea were not aware until close to the end of Ban’s term that he had been so harshly criticized by foreign observers.

However, the most striking anti-Ban slogan was being held by a protester in the middle of the tweeted picture below.  It reads:  “뜬금없이 나타나서 대안인척 하지마라!”  Roughly translated: “Do not appear out of the blue pretending to be an ‘easy button’ (solution) for all problems.”  That captures pretty succinctly the anti-Ban sentiment prevailing in the camps of some younger and left-leaning voters in South Korea.

Indeed, the Korean left is not very fond of Ban and some are already taking him to task for how he “behaved” at the homecoming.  In particular, some newspaper editorials are focusing on photo ops that were so obviously staged by Ban’s handlers.

Wanting to be seen as a “regular guy,”  Ban tried to buy a subway ticket to travel from the airport to his residence in Seoul’s Sah-Dang section.   So he went straight to the ticket vending machine.  However, instead of pushing a bill amounting to 10,000 won (equivalent to $10), he inexplicably tried to push two bills into the slot at the same time — this is a face-palm moment for any South Korean who rides the subway daily.  Ban became confused when the bills wouldn’t go in and his handlers had to intervene to get the tickets for him.

Ban's opponents had a field day with this face-palm moment.

Then Ban became thirsty so he headed to one of the airport’s convenience stores to buy a bottle of water.   He apparently wanted to buy one directly from the store clerk to demonstrate that he can connect and interact with “regular people.”  When he picked out Evian, however, one of his handlers quickly whispered disapproval.  So he put it down and switched to a Korean brand.

Ban couldn’t be seen drinking Evian so he switched to a Korean brand. YT linked to source.

Plus, at the briefing, Ban held and kissed a baby wearing traditional Korean garb for the 1st birthday banquet (돌잔치복).  [For those not familiar with Korean culture, there is a birthday banquet for well-to-do 1-year olds, who wear traditional Korean garb, including a head scarf, made just for that occasion. The same thing also happens on the 100th-day anniversary of birth as well.  There is even a thriving market for this type of attire, if you can believe it.]  These photo ops did not sit well with Ban’s critics, who called them “contrived” and staged to generate publicity for his presidential run.  Indeed, one protester who saw Ban leave the airport by taking the express train yelled at him, “Do you think you’re riding like a regular citizen?

The controversy grew a bit more when newspapers reported that Ban taking the subway stranded rush hour passengers.  Ban had arrived at the airport around 5:30 pm.  His entourage and those in charge of security blocked access to escalators and stairs during peak commute hours.  Several shoving matches broke out between security staff and passengers at Seoul Station.  In fact, those inconvenienced were not just limited to commuters — it also included the homeless population who make Seoul Station their home.

When it was announced that Ban would be passing through the station, the homeless were rounded up and escorted out by security staff to an outside court in sub-freezing temperature.  One homeless man remarked, “I have stayed here for more than 20 years.  Until today, I was never dragged out of here early evening like this.”   The tweet below attacks Ban for “following the ‘regular guy’ routine while seeking VIP treatment — its shows the true colors of this ‘slippery eel’ [Ban].  The homeless are being thrown out because Ban needs to be seen mingling with regular folks.”

To top it all off, it was reported that Ban had requested special protocols for a VIP ceremony (특별 의전) typically reserved for heads of state at the reception.   According Hankyoreh newspaper, Ban felt he deserved VIP treatment since he just finished his tenure as U.N. secretary general.  In fact, he thought he was going to get it. However, Ban’s request was turned down because under airport regulation, they are only reserved for VIPs such as presidents and prime ministers.

In the class-conscious milieu of South Korea, this ‘rubbing shoulders’ with the regular guy routine is de rigueur for all candidates.  It is especially necessary for Ban, who is seen as having led a rather rarefied existence for 10 years as U.N. secretary general.

So while putting on this ‘regular guy routine’ (서민 코스프레), Ban may have wanted a bit more pomp and circumstance than the situation allowed.  This is the reason why Ban is often regarded with mixed feelings by South Korea’s younger voters, who tend to respect him but are not drawn to his presidential bid.  For them, the moniker, “slippery eel,” is quite apropos given Ban’s tendency to do one thing while claiming to do another.

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