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Why Myanmar, North Korea are keeping their own time

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The North Korean women's soccer team returns to a warm welcome in Pyongyang on Aug. 10 after beating South Korea to win the Women's East Asian Cup in China.   © Kyodo

The U.S. has for decades lumped North Korea and Myanmar together as East Asian foreign policy problems. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice specifically underscored that connection when she included both North Korea and Myanmar -- formerly known as Burma -- as "outposts of tyranny" in her Senate confirmation hearings.

     Whatever the criteria, the two have indeed enjoyed a relationship of sorts, beginning with diplomatic relations and later through the Non-Aligned Movement. In 1983, however, relations changed: North Korea attempted to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a visit to Myanmar that year, killing 17 South Korean officials, including several cabinet ministers.

     This violated General Ne Win's personal hospitality, and Myanmar subsequently "derecognized" the North as a result of the attack. Gradually, however, relations improved once again, with explicit South Korean approval in the final stages of Seoul's "sunshine policy" toward the North.

Britain's Princess Anne meets Burmese leader General Ne Win on Nov. 21, 1987, in Rangoon during her visit for Save the Children Fund projects.   © Getty Images

     Myanmar's commander-in-chief secretly visited North Korea in 2008, although the two nations were more open about regular high-level exchanges, and Pyongyang at one point even helped Myanmar's former military regime dig defense tunnels in the new capital, Naypyitaw. In addition, Pyongyang has sold arms and missiles to Myanmar. There were even unconfirmed rumors of a nuclear relationship.

     There have been pointed comments about the relationship. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, for example, has said she wants North Korea to copy the economic system of South Korea, but undertake political reforms like Myanmar.

On their own time

Now, however, we have a more direct basis for bracketing the two countries. North Korea just announced it will set up its own time zone -- just 30 minutes behind that of South Korea and the "wicked Japanese imperialists" next door. Myanmar, meanwhile, has had its own time zone for decades, if not longer. The two are among only a few countries that offset their time zone from GMT or other standard measures by a half-hour increment. Others include India, Iran and Venezuela.

     Myanmar may have introduced its own time zone as a response to British colonial rule, but history is obscure on this. North Korea, meanwhile, has clearly declared its own time zone in one of its typically nationalistic fits. It already has its own annual calendar based on the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's "founding father."


According to domestic propaganda, the machinations of various imperialist powers have prevented due universal recognition of North Korea. The time zone change is in line with North Korea's claims that it is the font of East Asia's civilization, indeed, even that of the world. Kim Il Sung is the founder of what Pyongyang claims is the world's greatest philosophical system -- Juche (self-reliance), and, contrary to what linguists worldwide say, Korean is a completely separate language system not related to any other, such as Mongolian, Japanese and central Asian tongues.

     Similarly, Myanmar has its own calendar calculations based on its mythical foundation in 638. At one stage in the 1990s, Myanmar's military intelligence claimed that the country was the earliest seat of culture in the region.

Reading the clock

Why are such seemingly innocuous exclusive time zones important?

     As foreign investment continues to pour into Myanmar after decades of isolation, its leaders are fighting the impression that the nation is increasingly falling under the sway of China, Thailand and India. Still, there seems to be an intriguing absence of nationalistic fervor in its time zone arrangements compared to other areas.

     North Korea, on the other hand, perhaps believes that having a separate time zone will enhance its internal legitimacy -- although if it believes such a change will improve its external image, it is very much mistaken.

     Egregious manifestations of nationalism or jingoism may spring from two sources, one at each end of the nationalistic spectrum.

     At one extreme is the U.S., where nationalism, or "exceptionalism," comes from its strength and is based on a historical missionary zeal for spreading its political and economic ideology. Such nationalism creates one set of problems, often related to the inability of even a superpower to influence the world according to its ideals or preferences.

     The other end of the nationalist spectrum is rooted in insecurity and a sense of vulnerability. Here, North Korea and Myanmar seem to share common, if unexpressed, sentiments. Both societies, although in different ways, have felt vulnerable throughout their history.

     Each has thus felt -- with some justification, as both were colonies and both have been devastated by war -- that its culture has been under attack, and that it is still under threat. North Korea seems to believe it must rise above its former colonial masters and the perceived existential dangers presented by South Korea and the U.S.

     Meanwhile, Myanmar feels exploited by massive Chinese investment and at the same time fears Muslim expansion will wipe out its "fragile" culture. Both countries may believe that Western popular culture threatens to undermine their values and even the legitimacy of their regimes; North Korea already believes this, and Myanmar could if it is inundated with Western blandishments.

     To those outside North Korea, we might look with modest amusement at the new half-hour shift in "Pyongyang Time." But perhaps we in the West should be aware of the more subtle factors that are likely to have prompted such a change and think on how these factors may be reflected in America's own state policies.

 David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor emeritus of Asian studies at Georgetown University and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies 

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