All South Koreans will become one year younger as nation scraps traditional age system

By Charlie Sawyer

Published Dec 12, 2022 at 11:55 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

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As of June 2023, all South Korean citizens will be gifted with the opportunity to turn back the clock and, overnight, will become one or two years younger. On Thursday 8 December, the country’s parliament, the National Assembly, officially passed a set of laws to scrap its traditional methods of ageing, choosing to now adopt the international standard instead.

For those of you who may be unaware of the “Korean age” system, let’s first run through the history behind this unique counting method—one that has existed within the East Asian cultural sphere for over a millennium.

What is the South Korean traditional age system?

South Korea has always employed a three-age counting system: a Korean age, an international age, and a calendar age (most citizens abide by their Korean age). Under the Korean age method, citizens are already one year old when they are born. Another year is added to a person’s age every 1 January. So, for example, a baby born on 31 December would officially turn two the following day.

While the international age refers to the standardised system used by a majority of nations around the world, the calendar age is a hybrid of the international age and Korean age. Under this method, when a baby is born, they are considered to be zero years old. However, once 1 January comes along they will still add on a year. This particular structure is used to calculate the legal ages for drinking, smoking, and mandatory military conscription.

Although the origins of the ageing system are unclear, some have hypothesised that the one year counted on the day of birth refers to the time spent in the womb—with nine months being rounded up to twelve.

As for the extra year added on 1 January, some claim that it is connected to the Chinese 60-year calendar cycle. They believe that ancient Koreans placed their year of birth within this calendar cycle at a time with no regular calendars. Therefore, they tended to ignore their day of birth and add a whole year on the first day of the lunar calendar instead. As Koreans later began to observe the western calendars, the extra year is now added on 1 January.

Why is South Korea changing its current system?

The government’s decision to amend the current system follows a recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Government Legislation which asked citizens about their thoughts regarding the unification of the age-counting system. In the opinion poll, eight out of ten citizens (81.6 per cent) agreed that the system should be unified.

Not only is there a public mandate, unifying the age systems will massively reduce unnecessary social and economic costs. According to The Guardian, a number of international politicians have welcomed the move after previously deeming the South Korean ageing system to be behind the times and inconsistent with the nation’s extensive economic, global technological, and cultural power.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol has repeatedly criticised the process himself, deeming the lengthy ageing calculations as a drain on important resources.

A number of South Korean citizens have welcomed the change, with Jeong Da-eun, a 29-year-old office worker, telling The Guardian: “I remember foreigners looking at me with puzzlement because it took me so long to come back with an answer. Who wouldn’t welcome getting a year or two younger?”

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