You may or may not believe that ‘age is just a number’, but in South Korea, age is three numbers. The country has three valid ways to determine a person’s age, something the new government, under President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, is trying to change.
We explain the different methods for calculating age prevalent in South Korea, why age is particularly significant in South Korean society, and why the need for a change was felt.
The three methods
The first method is the international method, when a baby is born aged zero and grows a year older on each birthday. This method has been used to determine a person’s age for most legal and administrative purposes since 1962.
The second is the ‘Korean age’, the method most popularly used in society, where a baby is born aged one, and turns a year older on January 1, regardless of its date of birth. Thus, a child born on December 31, 2021 will have turned two years old by January 2, 2022.
The third method is the ‘year age’, where a baby is born zero years old, and turns a year older every January 1. This method is again used for some legal and official purposes, most notably for compulsory military conscription, to determine when a child can start school, and to determine when a juvenile needs legal protection from abuse.
Thus, South Koreans can have three perfectly valid ages, with more dramatic diversions from the international age for those born later in the year. For example, the band BTS’ star Kim Tae-hyung, or V, born on December 30, 1995, is 26, 27 and 28 years of age.
What the new government has said
Adopting the international age system for all purposes was one of the campaign promises of the now President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol. After winning the elections, his transition committee in April announced they would amend laws to bring this about.
The Korea Herald quoted Rep. Lee Yong-ho of Yoon’s People Power Party, in charge of the political, legal and public services at the transition committee, as saying, “If we stick to the international age system, we will no longer see the social and economic costs associated with all the confusion and inconvenience could arise from the age gap… There would be much less confusion if we have the same idea of what it means to be how old we actually are.”
The government plans to amend the country’s Civil Code by next year, and then look at other laws that will need to be changed laws to incorporate the revised age criterion.
This is not the first time efforts have been made to standardize age in South Korea. In 2019 and 2021, two lawmakers had proposed Bills to bring this about, but the legislation did not clear the National Assembly. This time, the People Power Party will not bring a new Bill, but amend existing laws.
Why different methods?
While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact history of how these methods came into use, some say the traditional ways of determining age take into account the time spent in the womb. Others say the unique method came about as ancient counting systems in this part of Asia did not have the concept of zero.
While similar methods of calculating age existed in China, Japan, Vietnam, etc., gradually, all the countries moved to the international system. North Korea adopted the international system in 1985, but with a difference – it follows its own calendar, based on the birth of national founder and president-for-life Kim Il Sung.
Problems caused by multiple systems
In the hierarchical society of South Korea where deference to elders is an important social rule, confusion over age can cause practical, administrative, as well as etiquette problems.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the age system led to confusion this January over who was eligible for vaccines and who was required to produce vaccination certificates.
Earlier, a wage dispute complaint reached the Korean Supreme Court, which ruled in the favor of using international age “when the company officially communicates to them its plan involving setting extra wages”, The Korea Herald reported.
Parents of children born later in the year fear their toddlers will face trouble at school. As a result, some cheat about the birth date during admission, while some plan pregnancies so the child is born earlier in the year. “They worry about the possibility that their babies may be at a disadvantage at daycare centers because of their relatively small size,” Hwang Ju-hong, the lawmaker who had introduced a Bill to use international ages in official documents in 2019, had then been quoted by The Guardian as saying.
Age also determines how you address someone in Korean, much like in many Indian languages (for eg., the tu, tum and aap of Hindi), and the wrong address can be seen as a major disrespect. According to a BBC article, age and seniority can also determine, in official settings, “who takes notes in a meeting, who calls to make a reservation for the team dinner and who distributes the spoons and chopsticks once you’re in the restaurant. ”
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The BBC quoted Jieun Kiaer, a professor of Korean language and linguistics at the University of Oxford, as saying, “The number one factor when determining which speech style to use is age. This is why people are always asking each other their age. Not because they’re necessarily interested in how old you are, but because they really need to find the suitable form of speech style.”
Opposition to the move
With increased exposure to the Western world, many South Koreans would like to adopt the international age system. According to a survey published in January by Hankook Research, seven out of 10 adult respondents wanted the change. However, there are others who say a part of Korean tradition should not be thrown overboard, and that the year age system fosters a sense of community among the people born in the same year.
“Unifying the age calculation so it falls in line with the international age system would mean breaking with traditional ideas of time based on the lunar calendar,” Jang Yoo-seung, a senior researcher at Dankook University’s Oriental Studies Research Centre, had told The Guardian in 2019.