"How old are you?" Koreans ask about age at the first time they meet someone. It is a normal act in South Korea, where people must use honorifics depending on a person’s age. With respect to age calculations, there was a new announcement on December 27, 2022. It was that Korea will use the international aging system (IAS) instead of unique Korean age from June 28.
Converting to IAS was one of the presidential election pledges of President Yoon Suk-yeol government. The goal is to prevent confusions caused by the age counting methods used so far. After putting the bill to a vote in plenary session, it will come into force on June 28 this year. Why is it not effective from January 1st? According to a video uploaded by the Ministry of Government Legislation, it is to help people in Korea adapt to the age standardization. That is because up until now, there have been more than one way to calculate age in Korea.
Korea has used three main ways of age calculations: Korean age, international age, and another Korean official age. First, new-born babies become a year old as soon as they are born with the Korean age system (KAS), and they become two years old when the year changes, that is, on January 1st; for example, regardless of their birth date, the babies born in 2022 become 2 years old in 2023. Second, a new-born baby is age zero according to IAS and becomes one year old after 12 months based on the date of birth. IAS has normally been used at places like hospitals. Third is the Korean official age (KOA). The age can be simply calculated by subtracting the birth year from the current year, and KOA has been used as a standard system for some administrative laws.
The government has adopted IAS under the Civil Code since 1962. As a result, so far, there have existed complicated ways of age calculations differently applied under respective situations. These methods caused problems when announcing the enforcement of vaccine passes. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the age of vaccination has been implemented depending on IAS, but the standard of vaccine passes was under KOA. In particular, when the regulation for minors was announced, confusion arose over which age counting method was to be applied. Many people complained about the baffling age calculations and demanded a clear standard for age regulation. In addition, the confusion prompted legal disputes time and time again.
On the other hand, some laws have been imposed using KOA; these include the Youth Protection Act, Military Service Act, regulations on examination and so forth. In a press release by the Minister of the Government Legislation’s website on December 8 in 2022, Lee Wan-kyu, Director of the Minister of Government Legislation, said, “If the age of citizens is one or two years younger, it could have a positive impact on society,” emphasizing, “We will closely cooperate with relevant departments to promote the culture of using IAS as soon as the bill passes.”
Adding to this, respective laws with this calculation will be revised after collecting opinions from the public and research services on the revision of individual laws. There will need to be a prudent discussion in the case of the Youth Protection Act regarding purchasing cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. However, the age of pension acceptance and entrance to elementary school, which many Koreans are curious about, have already implemented IAS, so there will be no change.
What did citizens think about these confusing age calculation methods? According to a public opinion survey conducted by the Ministry of Government Legislation in September 2022, 81.6 percent of the 6,394 people surveyed agreed that the revision of the Civil Code and the Basic Administrative Law should be carried out quickly. As for whether they intend to use IAS in their daily lives after the bill is passed and enforced, 86.2 percent of the 5,511 people surveyed voted for agreeing.
There are still various opinions regarding that issue. Some think that it will not cause a big impact because we have already used IAS in lots of places like hospitals. However, others are concerned about having to change the way they talk or call someone. On the other hand, there are others who expect age culture to change. In some time, people might not ask each other’s age to avoid uncomfortable situations, or the question can be changed from “How old are you?” to “When were you born?” However, some people are expecting that the new age calculation system would make Korean society insensitive to age. Standardization of Korean age, which will be in effect amid inconveniences and administrative disputes caused by complicated age calculations, seems to offset these problems. Changes could be uncomfortable as it starts. But we are also expecting how the Korea society will change after people adapt to the new system as well.