Anywhere else and this would have read like an April Fools’ joke. But this was North Korea. This Saturday the insular kingdom put its clocks back half an hour, returning the country to pre-colonial Korea Standard Time and righting a perceived historical wrong implemented by the Japanese.
“The wicked Japanese imperialists,” so read the story as told by the state’s official news agency, KCNA, “committed such unpardonable crime as depriving Korea even of 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.”
This statement refers to the imposition of Japanese time on Korea during the latter’s time as an occupied colony from 1910 to 1945. North Korea already has its own calendar, one that counts years from 1912, the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the state founder and so-called “eternal president”. Now it will have its own time zone at GMT + 8.30.
Controlling time is a powerful symbol – possibly the most powerful symbol of all in that it dictates when people wake up and go to sleep, when they have a day to relax and when they celebrate an often politically infused national holiday.
Throughout history, the powerful have stamped their authority on time. You need only look at the summer months in the western calendar, July and August, named after Roman emperors who oversaw realms that have long since crumbled. Or the fact that the Zero Meridian still lines up to Greenwich in London, which was the capital of the most powerful empire in the world when the meridian itself was created in the 1850s.
But in today’s interconnected and globalised world, leaders who wrestle time under their own control reveal not their power but rather their desperate insularity. Hugo Chávez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela out of the same time zone as the United States. A bold decision perhaps but if you can shift your country’s time that easily, your position in the world economy is probably negligible at best. Just imagine the calamity that would accompany a half-hour shift in the bell-ringing at the New York Stock Exchange.
So while North Korea’s leaders might see this yoking of time to their political ends as a show of defiance, the reality is that the move only serves to highlight their detachment from the world. At the end of the day, is this really going to make the slightest difference to anyone?
Matt Alagiah is Monocle’s associate editor.