All South Koreans to become younger as traditional age system scrapped

South Korea has passed laws to scrap its traditional method of counting ages and adopt the international standard – a shift that will make its citizens either one or two years younger on official documents.

Koreans are deemed to be a year old when born and a year is added every 1 January. It’s this age most commonly cited by Koreans in everyday life.

A separate system also exists for conscription purposes or calculating the legal age to drink alcohol and smoke, in which a person’s age is calculated from zero at birth and a year is added on 1 January.

Since the early 1960s, however, South Korea has for medical and legal documents also used the international norm of calculating from zero at birth and adding a year on every birthday.

The confusing array of systems will disappear from June 2023 – at least on official documents – when the new laws that stipulate using only the international method of counting ages take effect.

“The revision is aimed at reducing unnecessary socio-economic costs because legal and social disputes as well as confusion persist due to the different ways of calculating age,” Yoo Sang-bum of the ruling People Power party told parliament.

Jeong Da-eun, a 29-year-old office worker, is happy about the change, and says she has always had to think twice when asked overseas about her age. “I remember foreigners looking at me with puzzlement because it took me so long to come back with an answer on how old I was.”

“Who wouldn’t welcome getting a year or two younger?” she added.

The system’s origins are unclear. One theory is that turning one-year-old at birth takes into account time spent in the womb – with nine months rounded up to 12. Others link it to an ancient Asian numerical system that did not have the concept of zero.

Explanations for the extra year added on 1 January are more complicated.

Some experts point to the theory that ancient Koreans placed their year of birth within the Chinese 60-year calendar cycle, but, at a time when there were no regular calendars, tended to ignore the day of their birth and simply added on a whole year on the first day of the lunar calendar. The extra year on 1 January became commonplace as more South Koreans began observing the western calendar.

Additional reporting by Justin McCurry

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