The Strange History of Dictators’ Fondness for Changing Time Zones

North Korea has announced it will pull its clocks back by 30 minutes.

GettyImages-142914682crop
GettyImages-142914682crop

In the category of silly measures dictatorial regimes can adopt to try to bend the world to their will, none stand out for their hollow artifice quite like changing a country’s time zone. On Friday, North Korea announced that it will pull back its clocks by 30 minutes to abandon a time zone established during Japanese colonial rule.

Amid what appears to be increasing turmoil under the rule of North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, the measure is yet another case of nationalist pandering. The legacy of Japanese colonial rule -- which was marked by widespread human rights abuses, including forced prostitution -- remains a live issue in North Korea, where it is used to stoke animus and justify the government’s constant war footing.

"The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land with 5,000-year-long history and culture and pursuing the unheard-of policy of obliterating the Korean nation," Korean state media said in announcing the move, using its customarily understated tone. South Korea remains on the time zone the North has now abandoned.

In the category of silly measures dictatorial regimes can adopt to try to bend the world to their will, none stand out for their hollow artifice quite like changing a country’s time zone. On Friday, North Korea announced that it will pull back its clocks by 30 minutes to abandon a time zone established during Japanese colonial rule.

Amid what appears to be increasing turmoil under the rule of North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, the measure is yet another case of nationalist pandering. The legacy of Japanese colonial rule — which was marked by widespread human rights abuses, including forced prostitution — remains a live issue in North Korea, where it is used to stoke animus and justify the government’s constant war footing.

“The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land with 5,000-year-long history and culture and pursuing the unheard-of policy of obliterating the Korean nation,” Korean state media said in announcing the move, using its customarily understated tone. South Korea remains on the time zone the North has now abandoned.

Will the move have any practical repercussions? A spokesperson for South Korea’s Unification Ministry told the Associated Press that the move could make operations more difficult at a jointly run industrial park on the North-South border, but beyond that the measure appears to be mostly posturing.

Indeed, the change in time zone is the latest example of what is a long history of what might be described as time zone manipulation for political ends. Shortly after the Communist Revolution in 1949, Mao Zedong announced that all of China would be on a unified time zone — Beijing time — despite the fact that the country is about as wide as the continental United States. That move has had a frustrating effect on the country’s western provinces, which are effectively forced to run as if Los Angeles was on New York time.

“The reason goes back to a long Chinese imperial tradition in which the emperor is in control of time because it has a cosmological significance,” James Millward, a Georgetown University China scholar, told the Los Angeles Times in 2009.

In another putative symbol of political integration, Crimea switched to Moscow time last year after it was annexed by Russia. “We have returned home. We were born on Moscow time, and we are back to it again,” one Crimea resident told Reuters at the time of the two-hour time change. “I love the Ukrainian people, but I do not recognize Ukraine as a country.”

In 2007, Venezuela moved its clocks back 30 minutes. “I don’t care if they call me crazy; the new time will go ahead,” President Hugo Chávez said at the time of the announcement. Chávez argued it would improve Venezuelans’ health, as the sun would be up by the time they awoke in the morning.

Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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