By Jongyeop Jeong, 12th Grade
South Koreans will soon become a year or two younger following an official change to the country’s age-counting system. South Korea is changing its counting age system to the international age-counting system, where age is based on birthdate. The country’s National Assembly passed a bill mandating the use of this system, which will come into effect this June. This change was advocated by President Yoon Seok Yeol during his 2022 campaign, who highlighted the need to reduce needless socioeconomic costs resulting from the use of varying age-counting methods, which can lead to legal and social conflicts.
The counting age has been used historically throughout East Asia, including South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, but each country gradually changed to Western-style age, and all countries except South Korea have removed the counting age system. At present, South Korea is the only country using such a system.
Currently, South Korea employs a complex age-counting system that combines three different methods: birth age, counting age, and yearly age. The first one, which is the international age-counting system based on birthdate, is recognized as the official age under the law. However, most Korean citizens are familiarized with the counting age system, a.k.a., the “Korean age” system, which considers a person to be one year old as soon as they are born and adds one year to their age every New Year’s Day. The yearly age system is a compromise between birth and counting age systems and is used by some laws and media for administrative convenience. It treats babies as being born at age 0, like the birth age system, but also adds one year to a person’s age on every New Year’s Day, like the counting age system.
In Korean culture, age holds a significant role as compared to many other countries. Social interactions vary based on a person’s age. Firstly, the way people communicate with others depends on their age, and individuals are expected to use different types of speech accordingly. Even if the age difference is just one year, the younger person should use formal speech to show respect toward the older person. For instance, if someone was born on December 31, they are still expected to use formal language while addressing someone born on January 1 of the following year. Secondly, certain expectations regarding people’s behavior are based on age. For example, younger people are expected to pour drinks for older individuals, whereas older people are expected to pay for things.
There is a common misconception that “Oppa” is a term used to address an attractive male or boyfriend in Korean culture, thanks in part to the popularity of BTS and other Korean media. However, this is not the case. “Oppa” is actually a pronoun used by females to address older males. In Korean culture, the way people refer to others depends on their gender and age. For example, males use “Hyung” to refer to older males and “Noona” to older females, while females use “Oppa” and “Unnie,” respectively. On the other hand, regardless of gender or age, younger individuals are often referred to as “(Yeo)Dongseng” or simply by their names. This term directly translates to “younger brother/sister” and is commonly used to address someone younger than the speaker or considered to be in a junior position.
Back to the point, the lack of a unified social and administrative age system has caused numerous problems. One example is the concept of “same-age” becoming unclear when students with “fast birthdays,” born in January and February, are enrolled with students from the previous year, leading to disputes over age. Another example is the controversy surrounding the wage peak system, a system that gradually reduces the salaries of senior workers several years before retirement. In a case involving Namyang Dairy Products, there was a disagreement over whether the age of 56 should be counted as birth age or counting age. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that it should be considered birth age and determined the age to be 55. Even during the early days of the COVID-19 vaccination program, many inquiries were made about the age system used as it was not indicated. Furthermore, there were insurance contract cases where the driving privilege was calculated using the birth age, but people interpreted it as counting age, not receiving insurance benefits in the event of an actual accident.
Korean citizens appear to be in favor of this initiative. In September 2022, a survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice regarding the public’s views on the “Unification of the Age” indicated that approximately 82% of the 6,394 participants supported the proposal, with only 6% opposing it. The reasons cited in favor of the proposal included resolving confusion and inconvenience caused by the various age calculation methods, an expectation of breaking the hierarchical culture resulting from the current Korean age system, unification with international standards, and lowering the perceived age.
However, not all age requirements will be changed to the birth age system. Under the present law, the legal age for purchasing alcohol and cigarettes is 19, based on the counting age, and men are tested for military service based on the same system. To prevent confusion, the government has decided to retain the yearly age for some laws and policies that use it for administrative conveniences, such as the Youth Protection Act and the Military Service Act. For instance, it would indeed be confusing in Korean standards to have different ages based on birthdays if you’re a freshman in the same university. Although the social age calculation method will now be based on the birth age standard, the government has stated that it will review the necessity of revising these laws in the future. Additionally, it is undecided whether the legal standards based on birthdays, like the Public Offices Election Act, will continue to use the counting age or switch to the birth age system.
The upcoming bill is anticipated to significantly reduce unnecessary socioeconomic costs and alleviate the confusion in people’s lives caused by the current age calculation system. It should be emphasized that age is a crucial aspect of Korean culture and language, and the Korean age system differs from that used in most other countries. While infants born until June will continue to use the traditional “Korean age” system, the new age-counting method will be adopted as the official system throughout South Korea.
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