Tick–tact: The politics of time

This article argues that time zones are social constructs that are politically loaded and are tools that have been used to assert dominance and cultural unification. Beginning with the evolution of time and time zones, the article will proceed by accentuating the political facet of time. Using the North Korean time zone alterations as a case study, the article attempts to unravel the concept of chronopolitics. The article concludes by recapitulating its claims and providing more instances of time being used to further political agendas to present with a robust argument. 

The adherence to a temporal rhythm is very innate to living beings. Human beings, especially, make sense of the world and the changes around them using time. From understanding aging to perceiving day and night, time is an essential component of human sustenance. This way of understanding time mainly addresses the inner temporality of a human body, also known as the circadian system. While this is an essential component, it is a myopic way of perceiving time and used as a metaphor that dissuades attention from the power play. Time is not just a given natural fact in human society. Time is in fact a social phenomenon, constructed and materialized as a global system. Keeping the circadian system aside, this article will address the constructed nature of time. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘time (noun)’ as the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. Focalizing on two key constituents of the definition, ‘indefinite existence’ and ‘regarded as whole’, the political facet of time can be understood. Both these components hint at a factor of materiality. The essence of materiality in time can be explained when time is seen as a social construction; as an agency. The term ‘agency’ names cultural propositions about how the universe works and Greenhouse defines time as an agency that allows individuals to understand their social relevance. The West’s understanding of the concept of such an agency is what led to the construction of the time. In simpler words, in the late 1800s when industrial revolution was at its peak, an International Meridian Conference was held in Washington DC that was attended by only 25 countries where the concept of a single central meridian for global time was brewed. In the late 19th century, the British proposal for a meridian passing through the Greenwich Royal Observatory was approved and the global time zone was adopted . From the inception itself, this construction was politically loaded and the Eurocentric approach of this construction insinuated Britain as a political hegemon. Being placed in a superior position, known as the ‘one who knows time’, accorded immense power to the British. Global politics now not only not recognized political space, but also political time. The political approach of understanding time is termed as chronopolitics. 

As countries began to develop into independent sovereign nations, there was a sharp rise in chronopolitics. While the concept of a world time had already been afloat in the international arena, countries realized that those time zones did not align with their individual narrative. ‘Humans possess the capacity to perceive the connectedness of life and to seek its coherence’ and therefore, especially, the developing countries wanted to create temporal boundaries that preserved their collective identities. Subject to political manipulation, many deviations from the universal time zones can be observed but this article uses North Korea as its case study.

North Korea’s switch to ‘Pyongyang time’ is an epitome of chronopolitics. On 30th April 2015, the Supreme People’s assembly of North Korea declared that from 15th August, 2015 onwards, the country will follow a new time zone, the Pyongyang time. The Pyongyang time clocks back by thirty minutes from the time the country used to follow earlier. This shift was reasoned to mark the seventieth anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese rule. In 1442, during the reign of King Sejong, Korea created a standard time called the Han Yang time that was officially introduced as a time zone in 1908. This time zone followed the longitudinal value of 127 degrees 30 minutes east and was adhered by the entirety of the Korean peninsula. In 1912, the Japanese colonizers moved the time to 135-degree east longitude, translating to nine hours ahead of the Greenwich Mean Time, to align with the time followed in Tokyo

The Pyongyang time aligns with the Han yang time and this shift back to the original time set by the Koreans is an act of establishing an independent national identity. Not only is this an attempt to instill nationalism and honor the cultural heritage of Korea, but also a reinforcement that Koreans have not forgotten the atrocities Japanese inflicted on them. This is evident from a claim made by the Korean Central News Agency that said, “The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even 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…” 

The spillover effect of this shift clouded the South Korean and the North Korean relations which has been deplorable for decades. Commemorating the Korean culture, North Korea also claimed that the change was a part of a ‘conciliatory gesture’.  However, South Koreans question this claim and believe that the change to the new time increased the disparities between the countries. South Korea has been following the Japanese Time since 1961 and, hence, a few days after the switch, there was heavy shelling witnessed in the border region of both the countries. Economic relations were also dampened. Kaesong is an industrial zone in North Korea, where South Korean companies employ North Korean workers. This is one of the rare deals between both the countries that attempts to promote healthy work relations and economic harmony. Due to the new time zone, there was a lot of turmoil leading to the closure of Kaesong for a few months

In April 2018, during the inter- Korean summit, Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea would go back to following the earlier time zone in order to align with South Korea. Kim quoted that “It was a painful wrench to see two clocks indicating Pyongyang and Seoul times hanging on a wall of the summit venue… Since we were the ones who made the change from the standard time, we will go back to the original time”. This was a symbolic gesture made by the North Koreans to promote unity in the Korean peninsula. 

The interesting thing about this case study is that it represents the roles ‘time’ plays. Being an imperial ruler, Japan had the authority to regulate the time zone for Korea. The imposition of a new time was a way of establishing control and asserting dominance. In 2015, the change in time zones was perceived as a symbol of liberation from the Japanese imperial rule; the updated time zone acted as demarcation of the North Korean territory. Furthermore, time was associated with the cultural heritage of Korea and shifting the clock by just half an hour provided a sense of belonging to the North Koreans. Hence, time also has cultural connotations of oneness attached to it. In 2018, North Koreans reverted to the earlier time which was perceived as an attempt for reconciliation. Here, time was a political act to initiate cooperation between South Korea and North Korea. It is evident from this case study that chronopolitics has a significant influence in the realm of politics. 

There are many other instances of time zones being manipulated with regard to the international state boundaries. Based on the universal time zone, before adopting their own national time, China was distributed across five different time zones. To eliminate heterogeneity, the Beijing time zone was implemented in 1949 by the Communist Party. China’s attempt to unify the country as one showcases how indeed international political boundaries are often used as time zone boundaries as well. China is, however, a large country that stretches almost 5000 kilometers from east to west, but this is not the case with Nepal, and yet Nepal choses to follow a separate time zone from India to assert its sovereignty against India. Furthermore, a Swedish organization invented Lunar Standard Time for “future Moon colonies” which again affirms that time zones can be used to serve political motives, to establish dominance over something. With the advent of globalization, construction of time zones on an international scale brings ‘social order’ but is highly manipulated to serve political agendas. The biological understanding of time has now branched out into chronopolitics which deeply influences global politics. However, in Iceland, there was a clash between biology and business ideologies of time making Iceland a unique example of chronopolitics. For economic prosperity, the businessmen wanted to align their clocks with the EU but in order to adjust with the EU time zone Iceland would have to push back its clocks so much so that winter mornings would be pitch dark, affecting the overall health of the citizens. Time zones not only promote political objectives but also influence the economy and social functioning by a great degree.  Chronopolitics and construction of time zones has been a neglected topic and has ‘largely escaped’ the purview of scholars and researchers.It is astonishing that chronopolitics is an under-researched topic because time zones play a crucial role in impacting our daily lives. Time zones are characterized as only geometrical structures (longitudes and latitudes) undervaluing the role time zones play in the field of international politics. However, chronopolitics is rapidly gaining popularity. With the advent of globalisation and changes in technology, transportation and communication, the temporal and spatial aspects of politics have become more and more relevant to the international arena.

Vanshika Shah is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in International Relations

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