North Korea is going back to the future.
What a difference half an hour makes to Pyongyang
Starting May 5, North Korea will return to the same time zone (UTC +9) as South Korea and Japan.
In a conciliatory gesture, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said his country will turn its clocks 30 minutes forward to align its time zone with that of South Korea, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Monday.
Pyongyang turned back time by 30 minutes in 2015, to commemorate the the 70th anniversary of its liberation from the colonial rule of Japan.
During that period, Japan had set Korea’s time zone forward by 30 minutes, to align with its own time. The Koreas were not divided at this point.
For most of the years after becoming a republic, South Korea kept its “colonial” time zone.
For North Korea, changing time zones was “the first practical step for national reconciliation and unity,” according to the country's official news agency, KCNA.
The symbolic gesture is a reminder that time zones have never simply been a matter of geography.
Just look at North Korea’s sprawling neighbor.
1.4 billion people, 1 time zone
China, a vast country that stretches over 3,200 miles from east to west, was divided into five time zones, six years after the Republic of China was founded in 1912.
But after the Communists took power in 1949, authorities enforced Beijing Time (UTC +8) in the entire country as part of a drive to enhance centralized control.
In practice, this meant people all across the country could watch the state-run 7pm newscast, take the national college entrance exam and celebrate the turn of the Chinese New Year simultaneously.
But in the far-western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, located geographically two or three time zones from the capital, the use of Beijing Time has seen people adopting quite a different schedule.
Alice Shen, a reporter at the South China Morning Post who grew up in Xinjiang, told us what it means to live in the “wrong” time zone:
“We refer to 10am to 2pm as morning, and 2 to 8pm as afternoon. In the summer, it is still bright outside at 10pm.
“I grew up thinking 2pm was the correct right lunch time. When I moved to Beijing for university, I was surprised to find that people had their lunch much earlier.
In Beijing, the lights at our university dorm were turned off at midnight, and my roommates all went to sleep before then. But midnight was the time I spoke to my mother on the phone – she had just had dinner in Xinjiang. I had to go to the stairway to make my call.”
In Xinjiang, Han people mostly adhere to Beijing Time, which is also used at airports, train stations and public institutions.
But many ethnic minorities observe what they call Xinjiang Time or Urumqi Time, which is two hours behind Beijing.
“The idea of Beijing Time is a political decision of the central government," said Fredrik Fällman, an expert on ethnic minorities in China at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "For the Uyghurs to keep ‘Xinjiang Time’ is to my mind a mix of geographic reality, tradition, social and religious customs, and of course to keep identity and to set themselves apart from a standardized ‘Chinese’ identity.”
In recent years, hundreds have been killed in violence between ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
Beijing blames the unrest on Islamic extremism, but rights groups say the violence is fuelled by cultural and religious repression against the ethnic group.
The Chinese government has in recent years tightened security and surveillance to quash what it calls terrorism and separatist movements in the region.
All across the world, clocks have been reset for various political reasons.
Spain, which was roughly on the same latitude as the UK and Portugal, saw its clocks set an hour forward by the Franco dictatorship as a show of allegiance to Nazi Germany.
In 2014, the peninsula of Crimea jumped two hours forward to align with Moscow time after Russia annexed the former Ukrainian province.