By Andrew Hom, Lecturer, University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science

AT the end of last month North Korea announced it would move local time ahead by 30 minutes to synchronise with South Korea, in what was called a “mostly metaphorical” gesture that reversed an earlier decision to set Pyongyang time apart from South Korea. Yet the standardisation and synchronisation of time is much more than a symbol or gesture.

When he saw the “painful wrench” of Seoul and Pyongyang clocks running 30 minutes apart at the Peace House, Kim Jong Un proposed to recreate a single Korean time just as unprecedented negotiations to resolve the Korean nuclear crisis got under way. In doing so, he tapped into a longstanding political link between time, cooperation, and unity.

In 2014, after a conspicuous majority in a popular referendum voted to reunite with Russia, the Crimean parliament moved clocks ahead two hours to Moscow time. As 22:00 jumped to midnight, the Crimean prime minister told a crowd waving Russian flags, “I greet you with our return home”. More than a century earlier, the renowned German Field Marshal, Helmuth von Moltke, declared that if Germany were to truly become an empire, it must do away with its five disparate time zones and adopt a single time indexed to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Similar unification episodes can be found in the histories of other great powers. A well-timed populace more easily overcomes distance and difference as it grows a shared identity. No wonder, then, that Kim saw re-unifying Korean time as an important initial step toward the resolution of decades-long tensions and new nuclear anxieties.

Manipulating time can also arouse dissent. GMT, by now a commonplace, was initially quite controversial. The United States viewed it as an imposition of “English time” that violated American sovereignty. France initially refused to adopt GMT unless the US and the UK took up the metric system.

There is a darker side to time unity as well. During the era of colonialism, standardised timekeeping and personal “time discipline” were considered essential elements of European civilisation that indigenous populations must adopt to survive and to become modern, rationalised subjects. A well-timed citizenry was an upright nation.

Similarly, the symbolic appeal of timing caused world leaders to delay the announcement of the Great War’s armistice, agreed around 5am, by just over six hours, so that it would take effect at 11:11 on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. Tragically and entirely unnecessarily, around 11,000 soldiers died during this delay to the end of what has been called our first “war by timetable”.

What do these links between time and politics tell us about the current Korean issue? In the past, the synchronisation of time happened often – and frequently early – in peace or unification processes.

Yet it was only one step in a much longer journey. The return of a single Korean time does not point directly to a quick peace deal, denuclearisation, or even a durable detente. Some politicians worry, among other things, that Kim is too irrational to play the role of reliable peace partner.

However, in re-unifying Korean clocks, Kim displayed his arch-rational side, at least in temporal terms. Whether we accept or resist changes in timekeeping, history shows that this issue matters quite a lot to political leaders and publics. In this sense, Kim is playing by a very familiar script: if you want cooperation, unity, and peace, it helps to first ensure that everyone is working in the same time.