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South Koreans to become year younger after scrapping traditional age system

Children wearing Santa Claus outfits leave a ceremony by the Salvation Army to prepare charity pots for the underprivileged in Seoul on Nov. 28. The term “Korean age,” determined by birth year rather than the exact birth date, is still widely used in social situations in the country. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
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SEOUL — South Koreans are set to become one or two years younger after the country’s parliament on Thursday passed laws to abolish the traditional method of calculating age.

This traditional method, which will be replaced by the system used elsewhere in the world in June 2023, declares people a year old at birth and adds a year to their age every Jan. 1 — even if they were born just the day before.

The change was a campaign promise by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who cited social and administrative costs caused by the traditional method when juxtaposed alongside the international system.

The term “Korean age,” determined by birth year rather than the exact birth date, is still widely used in social situations in the country.

Since the 1960s, the Asian nation has also been tallying official ages of its citizens based on the international system, under which babies start at age zero and years are added every birthday.

Certain laws, however, use a separate method of calculating age based on the year of birth regardless of month. The so-called “year age” method applies when determining age for mandatory conscription or school grades.

The hodgepodge of three different age-counting methods often left South Koreans confused about how old they were depending on the circumstances they are in.

Official documents will use the international method starting mid next year.

Presidential spokesman Lee Jae-myoung said the simplified age system “follows the global standard and puts an end to unnecessary social and economic confusions.” The change is expected to address domestic as well as international communication issues caused by difference in age-counting methods.

The current setup also caused some awkward misunderstandings in South Korea’s Confucianism-influenced culture, in which age gap influences how people interact.

The traditional age-counting method was once used across East Asia but other countries like China and Japan turned to the international system decades ago. Experts say the method was kept in South Korea due to its culture of hierarchy.

“People finding their age one or two years younger will create a positive social impact as well,” said Lee Wan-kyu, South Korean minister of government legislation. He said the government will widely promote the new age system to help it settle in everyday life of the citizens.

“Not only administrative measures but also social efforts to break down the rank-based culture” are needed to incorporate the change, Kim Jung-kwon, law professor at Seoul’s Chungang University, told a governmental panel on the issue last month.