SEOUL (Reuters) - Former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon arrived home in South Korea on Thursday and said he will make a decision soon on his political career, amid expectations he will run in an election that may come early if President Park Geun-hye is forced from office.
Ban, 72 is among front-runners in polls to succeed Park, whose fate will be decided when the Constitutional Court decides whether or not to uphold parliament’s December impeachment of her over an influence-peddling scandal.
Ban, a former foreign minister whose 10 years as U.N. secretary-general ended in December, has not said whether he will run for president, nor has he affiliated himself with any party.
“I’ve been saying I will listen to our people’s thoughts after returning home. I will have that opportunity from tomorrow. I will make a selfless decision with a humble heart,” Ban said at the airport after his arrival.
“That decision-making won’t take long.”
Ban’s possible path to the presidency hit a bump this week when his younger brother, Ban Ki-sang, and nephew, Joo Hyun Bahn, were accused in a Manhattan federal court of a scheme to bribe a Middle Eastern official in connection with the attempted $800 million sale of a building complex in Vietnam.
Ban told Korean reporters in New York on Wednesday, before his departure for South Korea, that he was dismayed by the affair and had no knowledge of it.
“I am perplexed and embarrassed that close members of my family have become involved in something like this. I feel it is regrettable the situation has troubled many,” Ban said.
“I had absolutely no knowledge. My nephew is grown and I barely had any involvement in his life or how he does business,” Ban, who was not mentioned in the indictment, said in remarks broadcast on South Korean TV.
Throngs of media and well-wishers, some carrying signs saying B.I.G., the acronym for a fan club, Ban Ki-moon Infinite Good Fortune, greeted him at the airport.
“Thank you! Thank you!” a smiling Ban said as some in the crowd shouted his name. Ban picked up a baby dressed in traditional Korean hanbok clothing.
Ban returns to a country gripped by political crisis stemming from the influence-peddling scandal that has engulfed the political elite.
Park, 64, the daughter of a former military ruler, has denied any wrongdoing but was stripped of her presidential powers pending the court decision on whether or not to uphold her impeachment.
If it does, Park would become South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to leave office in disgrace and an election would be held in two months. As is, the scheduled date of the next election for a five-year single term is Dec. 20.
While Ban was greeting supporters, Jay Y. Lee, scion of the Samsung Group, the country’s biggest conglomerate, was being questioned by special prosecutors on suspicion of bribery in the wide-reaching scandal.
Prosecutors are investigating whether Samsung gave about $25 million to a business and foundations backed by a friend of Park’s in exchange for the national pension fund’s support for a 2015 merger of two Samsung affiliates.
Lee in December denied accusations the conglomerate sought to curry favour with Park or her friend to secure the merger.
The political crisis has seen big peaceful protests every weekend, with demonstrators calling for Park to step down.
“History will remember the year of 2016,” said Ban, who before the political scandal had been expected to run as a member of Park’s conservative Saenuri party.
“It will remember a miracle, made by the people in the public square, good people united to make a good country,” Ban said before heading in to central Seoul on the airport train.
Reporting by Christine Kim and Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Yun Hwan Chae; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel