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Bidding farewell to Korean age system

By Kim So-hyun

Published : June 12, 2023 - 16:21

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South Korea is finally letting go of an age counting method that no other country in the world uses.

Under the traditional East Asian way of reckoning age, a person is considered 1 year old at birth, counting the time spent in the mother’s womb as the first year of life, and grows a year older at the turn of the calendar year, regardless of the actual date of birth.

Japan dropped the method from its legal system in 1950, and China hasn’t used it since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. North Korea has officially used the common international age method since the 1980s.

Starting June 28, when revised laws take effect, South Korea will follow suit.

“I think it will be remembered as one of the greatest feats of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration,” said Choi So-jin, currently in her 40s, who turned 2 in Korean age just a few days after she was born in late December and has been reluctant to mention her Korean age for years. On the day the laws are promulgated, she will gladly shed those two years.

Aligning the Korean age system with the international norm was one of Yoon’s campaign pledges.

Seo Ji-yeon, an office worker whose Korean age became 50 this year, said the thought of being back in her 40s again makes her feel like she has bought lost time.

“For me, it’s a huge difference psychologically, and I feel like I should live life to the fullest,” Seo said, regarding the change.

While the shift seems reasonable to many, it may take some time before Koreans adapt to it.

Age has always been an important factor in Korea, especially among children, as in the Korean language how one addresses another is often determined by the age difference between the two.

Toddlers are taught to address older kids as “hyeong” (older brother for a boy), “nuna” (older sister for a boy), “oppa” (older brother for a girl) or “eonni” (older sister for a girl) even if they are not related. In preschools, older toddlers are often referred to as “hyeongnim,” with the honorific suffix “nim.”

“Chingu,” which means “friend,” is a term reserved only for those of the same age.

Children could be scolded if they were to call an older sibling or older child by his or her name.

Despite the fact that children in the same grade will go from all having the same Korean age to now having different ages, schools and parents are teaching kids that the age difference to be brought on by the law change does not suddenly make their friend or classmate “hyeong” or “eonni.”

“Children can fight over things like this,” said Choi, the mother of a 7-year-old who entered elementary school this year.

“In Korean culture, which puts so much emphasis on seniority, age has been an indisputable standard of hierarchy among children," she said. "Eventually, they'll get used to it."

Teenagers at the high school Choi teaches at are jokingly saying that those whose birthdays haven’t passed yet have agreed to call slightly older classmates “hyeong,” and then, after their birthdays, using the casual “ya,” when calling out to a friend of the same age or someone younger.

Some people think the abolition of the Korean age system won't transform the aspects of local culture that value seniority.

“I think the law is the law, and the culture is the culture,” said Jocelyn Clark, an American who teaches East Asian studies at Pai Chai University in Daejeon.

Mentioning how the idea that life starts at conception might have influenced Koreans to be more negative about abortion compared to the West, Clark said she believes the concept of Korean age will continue to play a part in Koreans’ way of thinking.

Nevertheless, the government is working on a smooth transition.

The Education Ministry sent out official requests to metropolitan and provincial offices of education last month to help educate students and parents to minimize confusion on age and allow a culture of using the international age to settle into everyday life.

Schools are showing educational materials that explain that the way of counting age has been unified.

There have been three different ways of counting age -- Korean age, the international norm and another system where a person is zero years old at birth, but adds a year to his age on New Year’s Day -- in use in South Korea so far, often causing confusion, misunderstanding and even legal disputes.

One of the school materials cites as an example the law that says a child under the age of 6 can accompany an adult passenger on a city bus for free. Depending on which counting method one follows, there can be arguments over a child who is 7 years old in Korean age, but is still 5 years old by the international system, as his birthday has not yet passed.

“Being of different ages among classmates can feel awkward in the beginning, but they don’t need to address each other differently,” it says.

Exceptions to the new system

Although the new age-counting system will make every single South Korean one or two years younger, there will be a few exceptions.

The age from which one can buy alcohol or cigarettes – 19 – will continue to be calculated by deducting one's year of birth from the current year, regardless of one's date of birth.

So, those born anytime in the year 2004 can buy booze and cigarettes, as the Youth Protection Act defines as a "juvenile" any person under the age of 19, “provided that persons who will have obtained the age of 19 after Jan. 1 of the relevant year shall be excluded.”

Under the Military Service Act, men are required to get a physical examination for conscription in the year they turn 19. This won’t change.

The legal age children start going to elementary school will also remain the same -- the year they turn 7 – under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Therefore, children born in the year 2017 will go to elementary school from March next year.