On August 15 the clocks will be going back in North Korea. This is not a regular occurrence. Actually, to the author’s knowledge, this is the first time the clocks have ever gone back in North Korea.
On Friday the DPRK suddenly announced that it is going to change its time zone. Currently the North Korean time zone is UTC+9, but after August 15 it will be UTC+8.30. Thus, there will be a 30-minute time difference between the two Koreas.
The order of the Supreme People’s Assembly, as published in the Rodong Sinmun, had this to say about the decision:
The wicked Japanese imperialists were mercilessly trampling down the Korean land, which proud of its half-10,000 year-long history and culture and were pursuing the unheard-of policy of obliterating the Korean nation.
They committed such an unpardonable crime as depriving Korea of even its standard time – the crime which shall not be forgotten for all eternity …
The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK makes the following decision reflecting the unshakable faith and will of the military and of the people on the 70th anniversary of the national liberation:
- Alter the standard time of the DPRK from the Tokyo time at 127 degrees 30 minutes (east longitude) (30 minutes later than the true one) shall be corrected to the Pyongyang time.
- The Pyongyang time shall be applied from August 15, Juche 104 (2015).
- Have the DPRK Cabinet of ministers and relevant organs to take practical steps to carry out this decree
In order to better understand the context of this order, a brief discussion of the historical background of this change is necessary. Korea enacted Western-standard time zones in 1908 – it was the UTC+8.30. In 1910 the country was annexed by Japan and within two years the colonial government synchronized with Japan proper, enacting the Tokyo time zone UTC+9.
This time zone existed in South Korea up to 1954, when the president Syngman Rhee, the Korean nationalist and the former independence fighter – reinstated the time zone UTC+8.30. The new standard did not last long: when the military junta led by Park Chung-hee took power in 1961, the time zone reverted to the UTC+9, as it was logically decided that this would be more convenient for everyone.
From time to time, various South Korean politicians have talked about reinstating the old time zone. But the government has always refused because fractional time zones are rarely used and because the North uses the same zone, making the change bad for Korean unity. This argument is now no longer valid.
TIME FOR UNITY
It looks quite awkward when a country suddenly, after 70 years, realizes it is being oppressed and humiliated by the wrong time zone and decides to throw away the loathed yoke.
The North Korean leadership … has almost always been confrontational towards Japan
The cause is simple: nationalism. Both Koreas like to punch Japan from time to time, accusing it of not apologizing vigorously enough for colonialism or for not paying enough compensation for it. In the South this paradoxically combines with general sympathy towards the people (but not the state) of Japan, interest in Japanese culture and the existence of a substantial minority of intellectuals who have an objective, rather than a nationalistic opinion about the colonial age. The North Korean leadership, however, has almost always been confrontational towards Japan. The DPRK can’t risk worsening relations with Japan because it had none: In 1965 Japan pledged to recognize only Seoul as the sole legitimate government of Korea.
So on one side, with this time zone change Pyongyang plays on the population’s nationalism like many post-colonial dictatorships do and, on the other side, makes a gesture towards the South. “See,” the DPRK says, “We’ve just reinstated our Korean time zone. Would you Southerners do the same?”
They probably won’t. First, it is quite inconvenient to change a time zone. Second, the South is seriously concerned about being a full and normal member of the international community and the fractional time zone would look a little strange. Third, the very idea that the North should be followed in anything is unlikely to be sold here in Seoul. If it were 15 years ago things might have been different but now, when the attitude toward the North has changed from soft and mellow to icy and hostile, this is unlikely to happen.
WHICH JAPANESE TIME ZONE?
Another interesting thing about the UTC+8.30, hailed by the nationalists as our, good, non-Japanese time zone, is that it was introduced when Korea was under the Japanese protectorate. As of 1908, Japanese Resident-General Ito Hirobumi had more authority in Korean affairs than Emperor Sunjong himself. In other words, both the UTC+8.30 and UTC+9 were created by Japan and it would be strange to prefer one to the another.
But here is how a nationalist’s logic plays out: Despite almost all modernization processes in the late 19th/early 20th centuries being either directly or indirectly influenced by Japan, everything up to 1910, when Korea was annexed, is declared to be native and therefore worthy of hailing and preservation, while everything after 1910 is Japanese and thus worthy of contempt and eradication. The moral of the story is simple: For an empire, it often more reasonable to create a puppet state than to annex territory, as it will enflame the nationalistic sentiment of the locals much less.
Thus one may predict that the time zone will become another topic in inert Korean arguments: Those Korean nationalists who sympathize with the North would say that the South did not change the zone since it wants to suck up to Japan and those who sympathize with the South will say that the North has just betrayed the idea of Korean unity.
And, as always, they all will be adamant in their opinions.
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Featured Image: IMG_0817副本 by Roamme on 2011-06-07 15:19:13