SEOUL – As South Korea campaigns to retire an old and odd age-counting method that makes people a year or two older than they really are, children are among the few who seem most eager to stick with the past.
“I turned 6 and then became 5 again,” Kim Da-in said when a TV reporter asked her about a new law that went into effect Wednesday that formalizes the international age-counting method in administrative and civil laws and encourages people to tally their own ages accordingly.
South Korea's traditional age-counting custom considers every person 1 year old at birth and adds another year when the calendar hits Jan. 1, meaning a child born on Dec. 31 turns 2 the next day.
While the new law is the country’s latest attempt to retire that method and standardize international ages based on the passing of birthdays, it’s not immediately clear what will actually change — putting aside the minor frustrations of children like Da-in waiting for their birthdays.
President Yoon Suk Yeol has described standardizing international ages as a key goal of his government, citing a need to reduce “social and administrative confusion” and disputes. But officials in South Korea’s Ministry of Government Legislation acknowledge the new law won't meaningfully change how the country’s public services are done, as most are already based on international ages.
International ages are the standard in most South Korean laws and official and legal documents, and define when a person goes to school, becomes eligible to drive and vote, and receives a pension.
Still, the law was welcomed by Choi Eun-young, a 49-year-old resident of the capital, Seoul, who no longer feels the need to describe herself as being in her 50s.
“The law doesn’t make you biologically younger and there are no real benefits other than feeling good about being called a year younger than before,” she admitted. “But if that’s the international standard, there's nothing bad in following it."
Oh Seung-youl, another Seoul resident, agreed.
“It’s always good to be younger,” Oh said with a laugh, praising the new law for turning him 61 from 63.
“My birthday is Dec. 16 and I became 2 years old less than a month after I was born,” said Oh. “That’s why (the old counting method) doesn’t make sense.”
But 21-year-old Kim Si-eun was already missing the old counting method, which felt simpler to her.
“Korean-style age was actually easier to count,” she said. “With everybody now going with international age, the changed ages feel awkward.”
While the new law states that a person’s age must be counted by the passing of birthdays for most public services, it does not affect other age-related regulations that are based on yearly rules.
Staying the same is the country’s legal age for drinking and smoking, which are allowed from Jan. 1 of the year a person turns 19 in their international age, regardless of whether their birthday has passed.
The new law doesn’t affect when South Korean males become eligible to serve their mandatory military duty, which is from Jan. 1 of the year they turn 18 in international age.
Changing those age regulations would require revisions of the country’s youth protection and military service laws, the government legislation ministry said.
Lee Wan-kyu, the government legislation minister, said the new law is mostly aimed at reducing confusion in daily life and inspiring a change in “social perception” toward a more rational way of counting ages.
Promoting international age as a social standard could be important in areas like healthcare. For example, a child could be at risk if his or her parents see a cough syrup instruction that reads “20 ml for 12 years and older” and think it means the “Korean age,” the ministry said in a statement.
There have also been instances in which public transport users demanded refunds after paying for their children’s fares, thinking the free rides given to children under 6 meant their Korean age.
Differing age interpretations inspired a major dispute in 2004 at a dairy company, Namyang, after unionists and management disagreed over the terms of their collective bargaining agreement that allowed the company to gradually reduce the salaries of employees aged 56 or older.
Following a yearslong court battle over whether 56 meant the Korean age or international age, the Supreme Court in 2022 ruled that the agreement should be interpreted as 55 years in international age, citing communication records between unionists.
Choi Duck-sang, a 56-year-old office worker, said being younger is not always a benefit in a conservative society where age goes a long way in defining hierarchy.
“You are losing as much as two years!” he said. “Still, I think this is a change that should have been made much earlier. It’s a good thing -– the entire nation got younger together.”
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim and video journalist Yong-ho Kim contributed to this report.