South Korea has adopted the international standard for calculating age, discontinuing the traditional practice of counting newborns as one year old. This transition, announced by the National Assembly last year, officially takes effect today, 28 June. It will be implemented throughout the judicial and administrative sectors of the country.

South Koreans, numbering over 51 million, will now join the international community in recognising their age based on their birth dates.

Under the traditional practice, South Koreans were referred to as one to two years older than individuals in other countries. This was due to the inclusion of time spent in the womb in their age calculation. This unique approach set South Korea apart as the only major country to factor in prenatal time when determining age.

The traditional counting system, deeply ingrained in social settings and workplaces, placed significant importance on the age hierarchy. It was a way to demonstrate respect for the process of pregnancy and childbirth. However, the inclusion of time spent in the womb often led to complications and disputes, particularly when it came to age-based insurance payouts and determining eligibility for government assistance programmes.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who assumed office on May 22, 2022, had strongly advocated for this change during his election campaign. He pointed out the unnecessary social and economic costs associated with non-standardised age-counting methods. President Suk Yeol’s advocacy resonated with the populace, as evident from a Hankook Research poll in January 2022. This poll revealed that three out of four South Koreans favoured the transition to the international age-counting system.

The South Korean Parliament passed the law in December 2022 and set the stage for the transformative shift.

Government Legislation Minister Lee Wan-kyu focused on the significance of standardising age calculation, highlighting its expected role in bringing about a substantial reduction in social confusion and disputes.

Age calculation practices in East Asia

Amid the sweeping change, certain legal ages will remain unchanged. The legal age for purchasing cigarettes and liquor, as well as the legal age for mandatory military service and school admissions, will not be affected by the switch. This decision ensures continuity in areas where age requirements play a significant role.

The old age-counting system, which included time spent in the mother’s womb as the first year of life, was not unique to South Korea. Other East Asian countries also engaged in this practice in the past. Over time, most of these nations recognised the need for change and abandoned the traditional system. For instance, Japan adopted the international age calculation standard in 1950, while North Korea followed suit in the 1980s.

The transition marks a definitive end to the previous use of the ‘Korean age’ and ‘calendar age’ methods that had long been a source of debate and confusion.

As the nation enters a new chapter, South Korea stands poised to navigate life with a renewed sense of age identity and a shared understanding that bridges both domestic and international perspectives.