Citizens of South Korea will legally become younger after the country unifies its various age systems. On Thursday, December 8, the South Korean parliament passed a law to abolish its traditional age system, with the internationally recognised method to be established as the standard. As of June 2023, most citizens will lose one or even two years of age on government paperwork. This article will break down the different age systems of South Korea as well as the implications of their standardisation.
In South Korea, there are currently three different ways to count one’s age, each used in varying contexts. The most widespread method sees South Koreans as one year old at birth, and a year is added every 1st of January. This traditional system is most commonly used in everyday life, and a person’s date of birth does not count towards their age. As an extreme example, a baby born in December would be two years old by the next month.
The international method follows the rest of the world, with people starting from zero at birth and gaining a year every birthday. This system is used for most legal and official purposes and will serve as the standard come June 2023.
The final method consists of subtracting someone’s birth year from the current calendar year. Like in the traditional system, one year is added to a person’s age every New Year’s Day. However, here they start at zero from birth. This calendar year system is used in more specific contexts, such as determining one’s eligibility to drink, smoke, or serve the military.
The presence of three different age systems has often led to confusion about which to use and when. A person could have three different ages at once. To demonstrate, someone born on December 31st, 2000, would currently be 21 by international age; 22 by calendar year age; and 23 by traditional age. The ambiguity of one’s age has also caused administrative issues, such as confusion over age group legibility for Covid vaccines.
Despite the uncertainties of South Korea’s traditional age system, it is ingrained in the country’s tradition and culture. It serves as the basis for the Korean Zodiac system, where birth year is emphasised over date. In everyday conversation, traditional age also determines how people communicate, with honorifics such as “oppa” or “eonni” dependent on age differences. Regardless, in modern times, one’s international age also has everyday significance with most South Koreans celebrating their birthdays each year.
The traditional South Korean age system has sometimes been criticised as outdated. Yoon Suk-yeol, the country’s current president, previously denounced the ambiguity of age calculation as a drain on resources. The law amendment unifying age systems comes towards the end of his first year in office, which began on May 10, 2022. The standardisation of age systems had been widely promoted during his campaign.
Many citizens have seemingly shown support for the standardisation of the internationally recognised age. A government survey in September showed that 81.6% of respondents supported the unification of age systems. The survey also indicated that 86.2% of citizens surveyed would use the standardised international age in everyday life. The main reasons for support included the resolution of confusion and inconvenience, as well as the breakdown of hierarchical culture stemming from the traditional method.
The National Assembly voted almost unanimously to pass the bill. It must still be approved by the cabinet before President Yoon officially signs it. Given his previous support for age unification, Yoon is expected to sign the bill and clear the path for its effects to commence in six months.
Nevertheless, it will still take time for people to abandon the traditional system, particularly in practical and informal settings. The traditional method of calculating age is intricately connected to the South Korean language and culture. Regardless of its abolishment for clarity or convenience in official contexts, it remains important to understand the origins of the traditional system and continue acknowledging its social significance.
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