On August 15, the clocks in North Korea will go back half an hour. The country will officially enter a new time zone which it itself has created – according to the country's official KCNA news agency, it will be dubbed 'Pyongyang Time.' As with much of what the North Korean state does, the new time zone is being framed as a triumph over imperial history. Pointedly, Pyongyang Time will begin on 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation.
"The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land," KCNA says.
In the grand scheme of North Korean announcements, this may seem relatively minor compared to the missives threatening nuclear war or announcing executions. But considering the actual impact of a time zone change, it's no small change. A new time zone changes the lives of every single person who lives in North Korea and alters the country's relationship with foreign powers.
At the very least, for those South Koreans working in the nascent area of economic cooperation between the states it's an unwanted complication to an already complicated situation."In the longer term, there may be some fallout for efforts to unify standards and reduce differences between the two sides," Unification Ministry official Jeong Joon-Hee told reporters on Friday.
North Korea may be a unique nation, but its abrupt decision to change its time zone is not without parallel. There's no international body that regulates time zones: If you're a sovereign state you simply get to choose your own. This lends itself to decisions about time zones being made by politicians, for political reasons, all over the world. Frankly, North Korea's proposed time zone change may be bizarre, but time zones all around the world are bizarre, so it fits in fine.
Consider the case of Russia. In 2011, then-President Dimitry Medvedev pushed through a plan to end the practice of daylight savings in the country, which had been used since the Soviet-era, and shift to permanent summer time. After it was implemented, the shift caused outrage in some parts of Russia, however, who complained that it was now still dark by 9 a.m. In July 2014, Vladimir Putin, who had by then returned to the president's office, announced that Russia would do away with permanent summer time. Instead, Russia would go to permanent winter time – and also re-introduce two time zones that Medvedev had removed, bringing Russia's number of time zone's up to 11, the most of any nation in the world. Putin had effectively destroyed one of Medvedev's only major legacies on the country.
There are arguments about time zones all over the world – the United States and Britain have both had debates about changing the way they manage their time zones in recent years, for example. Perhaps stranger still are the countries that haven't changed their time zones recently, but arguably should. For decades, India has has had one time zone across the entire of the country, creating significant practical problems (last year one state broke with the orthodoxy to announce plans to bring its clocks on hour forward). China also has one time zone, which is impractically centered around Beijing in the east of the country and leads some in the West of the country many adopt an informal local time so they actually see some daylight. In 2013, a study showed that Spaniards were constantly tired because their country was in the wrong time zone, itself a relic of the Franco dictatorship and the World War II-era.
Perhaps the closest modern parallel to the North Korean example can be found in Venezuela, where the late Hugo Chavez decided the country would change its time zone by 30 minutes in 2007. While the Venezuelan government officially stated that the measure would create "a more fair distribution of the sunrise," it was hard not to see a nationalistic impulse behind the move: Under Chavez, the country had already changed its name, flag, and coat of arms.
Venezuela and North Korea are relatively unusual in their use of a time zone that is half an hour past the coordinated universal time. While some major countries like India and Iran use a half past time zone, generally countries stick to time zones on the hour for understandable practical reasons. Nepal is even rarer in its use of a time zone that is 45 minutes past the hour.
If this all sounds complicated and messy, that's because it is. On a global level, it's actually pretty unusual for time zones to perfectly match up with solar time zones. So what explains this seemingly arbitrary and nonsensical system? Well, it's worth pointing out that the concept of standardized time zones is a relatively new concept, only emerging as an idea in the late 19th century and becoming standardized to a coordinated universal time later in the 20th century (Nepal didn't standardize until the 1980s). It's likely that time zones are still an evolving concept – some academics argue we should get rid of them altogether and set all the countries in the world to one universal time.
For now, politics and nationalism drive much of the decision-making behind time zones. Korea had in fact only briefly set its clocks to a half past time zone before being occupied by Japan in 1910, who then implemented their own time zone on the country. South Korea did return to the older timezone in 1954 but shifted to the Japanese time zone in 1961, according to Agence France Press, in part due to practical concerns about U.S. troops who were stationed in both South Korea and Japan. North Korea's move may well be intended as a symbol that it was the real hero in the fight against Japanese imperialism.
If North Korea does change its clocks back, it will be the second time in 20 years the country has made a major change to its time structure. In 1997, the country announced a new North Korean, or juche, calendar in which 1912, the year of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's birth, would be the first year. It is currently the year 104, according to the North Korean calendar.
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