South Koreans get a year younger as age-counting law changes

An odd anomaly in the way South Koreans mark their birthdays is being brought into line with the rest of the world — meaning that from today (Wednesday) some of them could be up to two years younger.

It is due to a new law being brought in that aligns the nation’s age-counting system with the international standard. Until today, South Koreans were deemed as being one year old at birth, because they counted time in the womb under a centuries-old system.

That system dictated that the entire population would have their ages advanced a year every first of January instead of on their actual birth dates.

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It was a change that the South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, advocated when he ran for office in 2022, arguing that the non-standardised age-counting system was having “unnecessary social and economic costs”.

It often led to disputes over age-based insurance payouts and eligibility for government assistance schemes. A poll conducted 18 months ago by a South Korean agency found that 75% of South Koreans strongly favoured the change. In December 2022, politicians finally voted to scrap the traditional old counting method, bringing it into line with many other East Asian countries, which had already dropped it.

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There are pros and cons — the legal age for smoking and drinking will not have changed, meaning that some young people who would now technically be breaking the law if they attempted to smoke or buy alcohol even though just yesterday they were perfectly entitled to do so, will be allowed to have their ages as they were for these activities assessed, based on the old system.

And though some may have thought that they may have bought some time before mandatory military service and school admissions kick in, the law will be the same as applies to drinking and smoking, meaning ages will continue to be based on the old system. There is no indication yet that this may be phased out over time.

The one-year-old at birth system existed in Japan until 1950 — even the North Korean regime scrapped it more than 40 years ago, the BBC reported.

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