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Koreans Becoming Younger – Unification of Age-Counting Systems

This is a guest post by Seongryeol Park, a foreign law intern working with Sayuri Umeda in the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress.

Tteokguk_Cooking_08: Cooking for Tteokguk (Rice-cake Soup). Photo by Flickr user Republic of Korea (Jeon Han, official photographer). Jan. 6, 2016. Used under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Starting June 28, 2023, South Koreans will be younger on paper in some situations. On December 8, 2022, the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea passed bills to amend the General Act on Public Administration (GAPA) and the Civil Act. The amendments aim to unify three age-counting systems in South Korea. The amendment acts (Act No. 19098 for the Civil Act and No. 19148 for GAPA) were published in the official gazette on December 27, 2022. The amended acts allow a half-year grace period before they officially go into force after their promulgation. (Amendment Act Supp. Provisions.)

Three age-counting systems in South Korea

Traditionally, Koreans consider that they become one year older by eating Tteokguk (rice-cake soup) on New Year’s Day. In the traditional “Korean age” (“세는 나이” [se-neun-na-i]) system, a person’s age is calculated based on the year they were born rather than their birthday. Under this system, everyone in South Korea is considered to be one year old at the time of their birth, and their age increases by one on New Year’s Day, regardless of their actual birth date. In this way, a Korean baby who is born on December 31 becomes 1 year old as soon as he or she is born then becomes 2 years old one day later on New Year’s Day. South Korea seems to be the only country officially using this age-counting system in everyday life, as even North Korea adopted the international age system.

Though Korean age is used for cultural and social purposes, such as determining seniority, it is not used for legal or official purposes such as determining the age for voting or driving. For these purposes, a person’s age is calculated based on their birth date, just as it is in most other countries. This “international age” (“만(滿) 나이” [man na-i]) is the legal age in principle and by established court rulings.

What makes this confusing situation worse is that there is another way of counting age, a “calendar age” (“연 나이” [yeon na-i]). A calendar age is calculated by deducting the birth year from the current year. Some laws, such as the Military Service Act (MSA) use this calendar age as a standard in determining the scope of military duty service, the draft list, and physical examination.

For example, Heung-min Son, the most famous Korean soccer player who was the top scorer in the last season of the English Premier League, and who is the captain of the South Korean Men’s National Soccer team, was born on July 8, 1992, and is 30 years old as of January 1, 2023, according to the international age system. On the other hand, he is 32 years old under the Korean age system, and 31 years old under the calendar age system.

Problems with using three kinds of age-counting systems

Due to these differences in age calculation or counting, it is easy for people to become confused and have to inquire about or dispute their age in relation to the provision of administrative services, such as social welfare and medical treatment, which results in unnecessary social and economic costs.

For example, instructions on the label of the AstraZeneca (AZ) COVID-19 vaccine in South Korea read “not recommended for those under the age of 30,” which led many people to ask the authorities whether this referred to “Korean age” or “international age.” Also, in regards to the guidance on the target age as “over 60 years old” for gene amplification testing (PCR) for COVID-19, numerous people asked the authorities for the exact age standard.

Not meeting an international standard is also a problem when translating from or to Korean, requiring additional checking and changing of ages.

Unified Age Counting System – International Age

After the amendments take effect, people will easily know that the use of “international age” is a principle in the civil and administrative field.

This change was one of the election pledges of President Seok-Yeol Yoon. It is also the 13th task among the 120 national tasks of the Yoon Seok-Yeol government.

There are, however, still many individual statutes that use the “calendar age,” such as the Youth Protection Act (YPA – alcohol and tobacco-related) and the MSA. For example, article 2 of the YPA states, “[t]he term ‘youth’ means a person under the age of 19: Provided, That persons who will have obtained the age of 19 after January 1 during the relevant year shall be excluded herefrom.” Also, article 2 of the MSA states, “(2) Where this Act prescribes the ages to provide military service, the term ‘from xx years of age’ means ‘from the 1st of January in the year in which he attains that age,’ and the term ‘to xx years of age’ means ‘until the 31st of December in the year in which he attains that age.'” Unifying the age-counting system will be completed when all of those individual statutes and related systems are changed. The South Korean government announced that it would closely examine the need for revision of these individual statutes.

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