On August 15th, North Korea will change its time zone to mark the 70th anniversary of gaining independence from Japan. In 1910, Japan colonized Korea and moved the country’s time zone ahead by one half-hour to synchronize with its new ruler. KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency, reports that the time zone change will restore Korea’s time zone to 8.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) — returning the clocks to where they were before colonization and immediately changing the actual time for an estimated 25 million people. This is not the first instance time has been tampered with.
The history of time standardization is key here: The positions of the sun and moon — known as Apparent Solar Time — were the original time fixtures for many people on Earth until the 19th century. By the 17th century, the pendulum clock had been developed to determine longitude at sea. As transoceanic travel became more prominent, so did the need for instruments that were more accurate and reliable for navigation. The variations in time in different locations went relatively unnoticed until the 19th century because of the length of voyages and lack of methods of long-distance communication. But with the development of railways and telecommunication, there became a need for standardized time.
The subsequently created time zones were touted as a simple solution by industries like railway and naval companies to the complex relationship between local time, solar time, and technological developments in travel and geography. Prior to the introduction of the current, international 24 time zones, the United States alone had 300 different time zones — a figure eventually reduced to 100 in an attempt to make train travel more convenient. In 1883, the United States adopted a system of four time zones. By that time, the U.K. was using one standard time zone for England, Scotland and Wales. The following year, at the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., 26 nations agreed that the prime meridian for longitude would pass through the Greenwich Observatory in the United Kingdom, thus establishing GMT as the world standard. It led to the development of the 24-hour time zone system still in place today. While that system has been the norm for 131 years, some nations and provinces, North Korea included, have exempted themselves from the rules.
Current standard time zones typically dictate that time differs by one hour every 15 longitudinal degrees at the equator. Because the earth is a sphere, as one travels closer to the poles, that time difference is reduced, resulting in smaller time zones in larger countries located near the poles. Russia, for example has 11 different time zones.
India and China, two of the largest and most populous countries, have only one time zone each, despite their large land masses – this is because they are closer to the equator. While India technically has two time zones, it decided to use only one in order to make standardizing scheduling of commerce and travel easier. China also uses only one time zone, presumably following similar logic. And as of August 15th, North Korea will be the most recent country to deviate from the standard GMT – a move that has been made for political, economic and commercial motivations since the inception of GMT in 1884.
In this case, North Korea will change its time zone as a political act against a former colonizer, perhaps hoping to symbolically assert itself in the region. Ultimately, Pyongyang’s move highlights the transient nature of time itself — namely, how, if nations can change their hours when they choose, time and how we understand it may not be as concrete as we once believed.