Kitack Lim has signed off from his eight-year leadership of the International Maritime Organization with an emotional farewell.

The South Korean diplomat won heartfelt praise from colleagues and friends at a series of events at IMO headquarters in London last week.

He was celebrated for his leadership on decarbonisation and safety, holding the organisation together through the disruption of Covid-19 and geopolitical ruptures, and most of all for his warmth and friendship.

“We don’t say farewell to a secretary general but to a friend — a real friend,” the chair of the IMO council — Spain’s Victor Jimenez — told hundreds gathered from IMO staff and 175 member nations at a party hosted by South Korea.

“Which makes it more difficult to find the right words. Is it enough to say: ‘Thank you Kitack’? It may not seem so, but I am emotional. Dear friend, you will always be with us. Now is the time to start enjoying your new life.”

Lim is being succeeded at the end of the year by Panama’s Arsenio Dominguez, who worked as Lim’s chief of staff for six years.

Katy Ware, the UK’s permanent representative to the IMO, said Lim’s “undoubted professionalism” was welcomed when he was elected — against the odds — in 2015.

“Little did we know how future years would test this organisation,” she said. “These challenges have highlighted your exemplary and commendable leadership ... for which we are eternally grateful.”

Ware saluted his “tireless advocacy” for the IMO, seafarer safety and environmental protection — and, as the host nation to the IMO, for his kindness shown to the UK team.

And she joked about the long list of British palaces and events he had visited and seen: two royal visits, the coronation (“We saw you on the telly”) and a trip to the Spring Place maritime HQ in Southampton that is jokingly known to its staff as Spring Palace.

“From you, we inherit an even more representative organisation,” she said. “In a world of division, this cooperation and influence has never been so crucial to this organisation. We thank you.”

South Korea’s ambassador to the UK, Yoon Yeocheol, said Lim had always been “through and through a maritime man” who had been elected in “very dramatic fashion that we all remember”.

Yoon, who is also his country’s permanent representative to the IMO, said Lim had made “remarkable achievements for the oceans that he loves and cares about so much, and fellow seafarers who he has always regarded as his dear colleagues”.

He said: “All secretary generals were exceptional and admirable. But secretary general Lim is uniquely distinguished by his easy-going and friendly personality. He addressed every single staff member of the secretariat by name.”

Yoon unveiled an official portrait of Lim for the IMO donated by the Korean Shipowners’ Association. A celebratory cake featured models of Lim indulging in his passions of golf and karaoke.

In an emotional final tribute, the ambassador said: “Thank you Mr Lim for your love of the IMO and your immeasurable contribution. We will all remember your leadership, forever.”

In response to the tributes, Lim said that as a “humble seaman”, it had been a great honour and privilege to serve the IMO. He saluted member states for their “magnificent and extraordinary” achievements, and the professionalism and effectiveness of the secretariat.

He cited the unanimous support for the IMO’s greenhouse gas reduction strategy last summer, which he argued was “the most successful case within the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] regime. I’m very proud of that.”

And he thanked Doria, his wife of 42 years, for her tireless support: “I am so grateful to you. Thank you for your strong and unwavering support.”

Lim’s final project was to commission a history of the IMO entitled Safer Shipping, Cleaner Seas by John Barnes.

“If you haven’t thought of Christmas presents, then the secretary general has thought of everything for you. It is available from the IMO shop and online,” IMO chief of staff Damien Chevallier said.