North Korea Creates New Time Zone

PYONGYANG -- It seems appropriate for a nation that venerates its history and is stuck in the past will go back in time today, as the North Koreans turn back their clocks by half an hour, thus creating a new and unique time zone: Pyongyang time.

The hermit kingdom already has its own calendar, with years counted from 1912, the birth year of its founder and “eternal president”, Kim Il Sung.

Why is North Korea turning back its clocks by 30 minutes, thus putting it "behind" its previously shared coordinate with "imperialist" adversaries, Seoul and Tokyo (UTC + 09:00)?

Such time-traveling is the latest example of a long historical tradition of rulers expressing political power by adjusting clocks and calendars. Doing so alters a fundamental aspect of daily life, literally at a stroke. And what better illustration could there be of a ruler’s might than control over time itself?

Admittedly, not all such changes stand the test of time: French revolutionaries, keen to emphasize the break with their monarchist past, failed to get their ten-hour clock and entirely new calendar to stick after imposing them in 1793.

The Soviet Union’s experiments with five- and six-day weeks during the 1930s also failed to endure. But those changes that do persist can memorialize past rulers more effectively than any physical monument.

Governmental Grip

In the modern era, control of time provides a way to underline the grip of central government: both India and China, despite their size, have a single time zone, which keeps everyone marching in step with the capital.

A unique time zone also offers an opportunity for emphasizing independence and non-conformity. Hugo Chávez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone -- supposedly to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensuring that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with the United States.

Imperial Imposition

For its part, North Korea is shifting its time zone this weekend to reverse the imposition of Tokyo time by “wicked Japanese imperialists” in 1912. South Korea did the same in 1954, but switched back to Japanese time in 1961.

North Korea’s new time zone therefore extends the division of the Korean peninsula into the realm of time as well as space.

History of Time Zones

The International Meridian Conference at Washington DC, adopted a proposal in October 1884 which stated that the prime meridian for longitude and timekeeping should be one that passes through the centre of the transit instrument at the Greenwich Observatory in the United Kingdom. Thirty time zones of 15 degrees each were allocated to encompass our 360-degree globe.

The main factor favoring Greenwich as the site of the prime meridian was:

Britain had more ships using the Greenwich Meridian than the rest of the world put together; and since 1767, the British Navy -- the world's most powerful -- had relied upon Greenwich Observatory data which had a reputation for excellence.

French Dispute

Interestingly, many French maps showed zero degrees at Paris for many years despite the International Meridian Conference’s outcomes in 1884.

GMT was the universal reference standard -- all other times being stated as so many hours ahead or behind it -- but the French continued to treat Paris as the prime meridian until 1911.

Even so, the French defined legal time as Paris Mean Time minus nine minutes and 21 seconds. In other words, this was the same time as GMT.

France did not formally use to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) as a reference to its standard time zone (UTC+1) until August in 1978.

Standard time, in terms of time zones, was not established in United States law until the Act of March 19, 1918, sometimes called the Standard Time Act. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) has authority over U.S. time zone boundaries.

Most countries adopted hourly time zones by the late 1920s, using standard time zones. Some places -- such as North Korea -- adopt half-hour deviations from standard time or use quarter hour deviations. China relies upon a single time zone even though its territory extends beyond the allotted 15 degrees of longitude.

Today's homepage Featured Video offers more history, emphasizing the role of railroads in time zone creation.