Image: Government literature explaining the difference among traditional age, year age and age in full. Credit: Ministry of Government Legislation.
The English-language media went abuzz with the change in the law that supposedly abolished the traditional “Korean age” system, in which a baby is considered one year old at the moment of birth and gains a year at the beginning of each year - which theoretically could make a child born on December 31, 2022 considered two years old as of January 2, 2023. “How Old Are You? South Korea Tries to Simplify What Should be a Simple Question”, read the New York Times headline. “South Koreans to Become Year Younger After Scrapping Traditional Age System,” declared the Washington Post.
In truth, however, the revisions to the Civil Act 민법 and the General Act on Public Administration 행정기본법, which the National Assembly 국회 passed on December 8, did nothing to the traditional Korean age system, which was the common method of counting age in East Asia that had faded elsewhere. The Korean age system is strictly customary, and has no legal codification. In most parts of Korean law, the “full age 만 나이”, i.e. age based on one’s birthday, is the standard measure of counting age, as in most of the world. For example, South Korean children begin mandatory schooling “on March 1 of the year following the day on which a child turns six years old,” according to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 초중등교육법.
The revisions instead streamlined some instances in the law in which age was counted based on birth year rather than birth date. Previously, for example, the Military Service Act 병역법 stipulated that a Korean male was eligible for draft in the year he turned 18 years old, which left open a possibility that 17-year-old whose birthday was December 31 could be drafted on January 1 of that year despite having another 364 days before turning 18 years old “in full.” But this “year age 연 나이” system is not the same thing as the “Korean age.”
For example, on January 1, 2022, a person born on December 31, 2000 would be 21 years old “in full” (because she turned 21 on December 31, 2021), 22 years old in “year age” (because she will turn 22 within the same calendar year), and 23 years old in “Korean age.” More importantly, “year age” is not a way in which Koreans customarily calculate their age in social settings - which means the law abolishing the “year age” system has nothing to do with how old Koreans consider themselves to be.