North Korea’s Time Zone Switch Isn’t That Weird Once You Think About It

Time is kinda more like play-doh, Rust.

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Aug 8 2015, 12:00pm

Yonggwang Station, Pyongyang Metro. Image: John Pavelka/Flickr

As the story goes, North Korea did a funny thing and announced it with bombast. Pyongyang said Friday that it would, effective August 15, switch to its own time zone: Pyongyang Time. According to state news agency KNCA, the switch would bring the country 30 minutes ahead of Japan.

"The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time," KNCA said.

You'd think the country was just waggling its independence in front of everyone again, but countries have been flip-flopping on timekeeping for all sorts of reasons—mostly nationalistic and colonial in nature.

The first thing you need to know is that timekeeping for geographic regions is governed by the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and time itself is measured in offsets from Greenwich, England. US Eastern time, for instance, is UTC-5, West Coast is -8, and so on.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

For anyone who's ever travelled extensively, you'll know that these offsets cause literal headaches and a lot of logistical fuckery, even when they're off by exact hours. But a glance at the history of time zones shows that plenty of nations have made their own time zones, changed them, and screwed around with them for much of the past two centuries.

Image: Giphy/Source

So for instance, Nepal's current time zone is weird enough: UTC+5:45. 45 minutes is just at the cusp of the next hour so you can practically round it up. But the point of the 45-minute offset was to be 15 minutes ahead of India and to thrust Nepal's independence from the country into public light. India itself adopted a country-wide time zone after gaining independence from Britain, but while it was a colony, it was divided into two time zones: one 4 hours and 51 minutes ahead of Greenwich, the other 5 hours and 30 minutes ahead.

The Chatham Islands, an archipelago 423 miles off the coast of New Zealand, are on a 45-minute offset, much like Nepal. No one knows quite why they kept on that 45-minute offset, but people pretty much started setting clocks 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand and it became a thing in New Zealand's Time Act of 1974.

Warsaw was up to some weirdness too: up until 1915 the city operated on a UTC offset of +1:24, until it joined almost the rest of the continent on Central European Time.

All this goes to say: time is only partially based on the movement of celestial bodies, the rest is all politics.

North Korea, I really don't give a hoot if you have your own time zone—chances are I'll never even reach your borders. But if island states can make their own time zones for less than practical or political reasons, more power to you.