North Korea and a Christian View of Time

Last Friday North Korea announced that it would soon be adopting its own time zone — putting the country half an hour behind South Korea and Japan and half an hour ahead of China. Now, this isn’t actually unprecedented; Foreign Policy pointed out that there’s a “long history of what might be described as time zone manipulation for political ends,” including Hugo Chavez’s decision to move Venezuela’s time zone by half an hour in 2007. There’s even a kind of logic to this particular move: it returns North Korea to the time it used before being forced onto Japanese time when that country ruled Korea. (South Korea did the same thing from 1954 to 1961.) As North Korea’s state news agency put it:

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 change to the new time zone will take place on August 15, the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II.

But one South Korean scholar, Chang Yong-seok, told the New York Times that the move chiefly serves to underscore the isolation and total power of the North Korean state: “With the new time zone, Kim Jong-un is reasserting his code words of self-reliance and national dignity to his people… Whatever difficulties and inconveniences the new time zone may cause are nothing to his government, compared with its propaganda value at home.”

Map of the world's time zones
This time zones map will have to be updated to incorporate the North Korean announcement… And if you can zoom in, note how many other time zones are a half-hour off from their neighbors

While this news just underscores how repulsive Kim’s regime truly is, I suspect it mostly evokes three responses from most readers in the West: bemusement (Can North Korea get any more bizarre?), annoyance (This isn’t going to inconvenience me, is it?), or boredom (Who cares about time zones, anyway?).

But I wonder if — oddly — this announcement shouldn’t make us pause to think about the nature of time and how it’s structured.

Time zone convention plaque in Chicago
Plaque marking the site in Chicago where American railroads adopted standardized time zones in 1883 – Creative Commons (Joe Smack)

First, while time zones might seem rather mundane to us, they are a relatively recent invention that epitomize several themes of modernity: standardization and rationalization (though in practice they’re actually quite confusing and irrational), but also the rise of certain kinds of economy and empire. While most Americans are probably happy that the railroads replaced the hundreds of local “sun times” with four time zones, if I were African, Asian, Latin American, or Native American, I might not scoff at North Korea’s complaint that standard time zones reflect an imperial structuring of time. (Much like many of the world’s boundaries reflect an imperial structuring of space.)

Now, as a sometime world traveler and as an international historian whose job involves telling stories embedded in time, I’m perfectly fine that we don’t have thousands of time zones around the world. And there are probably less disruptive and more effective ways to right the wrongs of empire than to shift the clocks back thirty minutes.

But the very fact that we take time zones for granted — and snicker nervously at crazy-scary dictators who deviate from accepted practice — should at least remind modern Christians how little thought we give to time, which is, after all, one of the central features of Creation.

How many of us truly honor the Sabbath, which Lauren Winner calls “a basic unit of Christian time,” a set-apart break that is distinct from “time as we know it” (Mudhouse Sabbath, p. 3)? How many of us interrupt our work and leisure to do like Jesus, the apostles, and millions of earlier believers and pause to pray at fixed times in the morning, afternoon, evening, and night?

As Phyllis Tickle points out in the introduction to each part of her Divine Hours prayer manuals, “praying the hours” enabled early Jewish followers of the Way to adapt a distinctive spiritual tradition to life in a Roman empire “whose efficiency and commerce depended in no small part upon the orderly and organized conduct of each business day.” Sound familiar?

As a people called to live “in the world, but not of it,” Christians should expect to live within a certain structuring of time that enables “orderly and organized conduct,” but not to the point that we forget the sacredness of time and simply define its use in terms of “efficiency and commerce.”

6 thoughts on “North Korea and a Christian View of Time

    1. Yikes, and now my failure to read more than scraps of Foucault in grad school make me worry that I’ve written something either incredibly obvious or incredibly foolish…

      1. Heavens no–not foolish at all! I just think Foucault’s ideas there would very much complement the point you’re making here. For F, the stricter regulation/regimentation of time is part of how the kind of power creates “docile bodies.” It’d certainly underscore your idea about using time as part of a structure of control.

  1. Good points, especially about the manipulation of time for political ends.

    There are also – according to Frank Senn, Paul Bradshaw and Robert Taft among others – two distinct prayer traditions in the Christian heritage which measure, and therefore manage time differently. One (the “Cathedral” office) measures seasons, while the “monastic” office is much more focussed on hours and days.

    Are we ‘called’ to live “in the world and not of it?” I had always thought of Jesus remark as a description, rather than instruction… (John 17.14-19)

    1. Perhaps “called” is too strong… I’m actually thinking more of how that description (if you’d rather) is developed by a tradition of theological reflection that goes back to the Letter to Diognetus. It’s not the only way to live out what Jesus prays for, but it’s the one I resonate most with.

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