In Korea, it has been the rule rather than the exception for political parties to change their names ahead of elections. Parties here seldom reflect heritage and history. The United Kingdom has the Conservative and the Labor parties, and the United States have the Republicans and Democrats, without switching their names every time their popularity falls.
Ironically, Korea’s parties often moved in the opposite direction to what their name suggested.
The nation’s first president, Syngman Rhee, founded the Liberal Party in 1951. He was, however, not the most liberal head of state. The U.S.-trained Ph.D. holder enacted laws that curtailed political freedom and branded his opponents as communists. He should have named his party the anti-communist party.
Following a coup in 1961, Park Chung-hee formed the Democratic Republican Party. During his 18-year iron-fisted rule, he brutally crushed pro-democracy fighters. He was not a republican, opposing a monarchy and forming a dictatorship. His party pursued policies in an undemocratic and non-republican way.
Chun Doo-hwan, another coup leader in 1979, founded the Democratic Justice Party. In hindsight, the most undemocratic head of state had an inferiority complex for his unjust way of becoming president through an indirect vote of nonpartisan delegates who were easily manipulated.
Chun’s co-coup leader Roh Tae-woo changed the party name to the Democratic Liberal Party. The renaming came following a marriage of convenience with pro-democracy fighter Kim Young-sam in 1990. Roh, however, had tried to make the nation more democratic and liberal than ever during Korea’s turbulent transition to a fuller democracy. Unlike Rhee and Chun, he had tried to toe the ideal his party name suggested.
His successor, Kim Young-sam, then renamed it the New Korea Party. In the name of making Korea something new, he brought his predecessors Chun and Roh to court for sedition and bribe-taking charges. He adopted the real-name financial transaction system, revolutionizing the way politicians raised slush funds. Kim also disbanded the cliquish network of elite military leaders, precluding any possibility of a military coup. He also made Korea the newest country which had to seek an unprecedented bailout fund from the IMF in 1997.
The successor to the New Korea Party was the current Grand National Party (GNP). Following a defeat in the 1997 presidential election, it was in a serious predicament following revelations of its imaginative methods of illegally raising funds. Conglomerates packed bundles of banknotes in the trunks of cars either at highway service areas and underground parking lots. The party had the nickname of the party raking cash through cars.
Now the GNP has tentatively changed its name to the Saenuri Party (literally the New World Party). The name is still abstract with religious overtones as many churches have the name Nuri.
The current opposition party started as the Democratic Party in 1951. Its two leaders ― Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam ― favored such words as peace, democracy, unification and new politics. Kim Dae-jung created the Party for Peace and Democracy in his second bid for the 1987 presidency. He later changed the name to the National Alliance for New Politics in 1995 before his third bid for the presidency in 1997. After becoming president, he renamed it the New Millennium Democratic Party. The late Kim tried to include words reflecting his philosophy, such as peace, democracy and new politics.
Later his successor Roh Moo-hyun changed the name to the Uri (our) Party.
Before joining hands with his former political enemy, namely military coup leader Roh Tae-woo in 1990, the pro-democracy fighter Kim Young-sam favored such words as unification and democracy. After becoming president, he adopted an anti-unification stance although he set Korea on the course to a mature democracy.
In changing names, parties must take a few things into consideration. First, the name should clearly denote for what it strives. Second, its Korean name should easily translate into English. By these standards, the Saenuri Party has serious flaws as New World Party is quite abstract.
Voters question what new world it is pursuing. Foreigners might think the party has imperialistic overtones. The name itself symbolizes repentance over its poor performance as seeking a new world acknowledges its poor showing in an old world. This indicates the party will seek anything but President Lee Myung-bak’s policies. This is an embarrassment to Lee and his conservative supporters.
Its purported pursuit of a new world will be puzzling to its traditional supporters because seeking a new world indicates an ideological shift from conservatism. The new world is not always refreshing and visionary because voters want something concrete in a party’s platforms. Changing names will not always impress voters. Voters want to know their heritage and history. How about the governing party changing its name to the Vote-for-Us Party?
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com