Millions of South Koreans Could Soon Get Younger (on Paper)

SEOUL — When Lee Jae-hye goes to the United States, she’s 30. When she’s back in South Korea, she’s 32.

“It’s so confusing,” said Ms. Lee, a video producer in Seoul who frequently flies between the two countries.

That’s because South Korea counts people’s ages three ways, often adding a year or two to the international standard. This can present situations ripe for confusion, since age determines roles in the social hierarchy and is important in legal milestones like when one has the right to drink or vote. It undergirds mundane tasks like filling out official paperwork, and it is key to figuring out how to address elders.

But soon, nearly 52 million South Koreans may step into the world of Benjamin Button, shaving up to two years off their ages (if only on paper), if President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol keeps a campaign promise to scrap the nation’s unique system.

On April 11, Lee Yong-ho, an official with Mr. Yoon’s transition team, announced plans to proceed with the change. Mr. Yoon, who takes office in May, hopes to do so by passing an amendment to the Constitution by the end of next year.

Mr. Lee said the shift would reduce confusion and make communication easier, domestically and internationally. It would also help eliminate “unnecessary social and economic costs,” he said.

The exact origins of the Korean age system are hard to trace, stemming from long-held beliefs, said Prof. Yoon In-jin, who specializes in urban sociology at Korea University. “We can’t know or remember the origins of our Korean customs,” he said. “It’s just the way we have done things.”

Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president-elect, campaigning in March. Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York Times

Here’s how the three ways of counting age work.

Under the first, and most widely used, method — often simply called “Korean age” — people are considered a year old at birth, and they add a year to their age every Jan. 1. This applies even to an infant born on, say, Dec. 31, who would be considered 2 years old the very next day. In other words, the birth year, not the date of birth, determines someone’s age. This method is the one most commonly recognized in social situations.

The second is the one the rest of the world uses: starting the count from zero at birth and adding a year on every birthday. Since 1962, that system has been used in South Korea for most legal and official purposes, such as for medical procedures.

The third, and least common, method is known as “year age.” Like the international system, it starts from zero at birth, but it adds a year of age every Jan. 1 — so that baby born on Dec. 31 would turn 1, not 2, the following day. This method applies to laws such as the Military Service Act — which sets the age of compulsory conscription — and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which decides when children begin school.

Such age-counting methods were previously used in other places with Confucianist traditions, like China and Taiwan, but South Korea is the only nation that still recognizes them, according to Suh Chan S., a professor in the department of sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

Mr. Yoon’s push to change the system has wide public backing. In a survey published in January by the polling company Hankook Research, seven out of 10 adult respondents supported getting rid of the Korean age system.

Forty percent said the change would ease conflicts within the country’s social hierarchy. A majority, 53 percent, said reducing confusion at the administrative and legal levels was a good reason to pass Mr. Yoon’s proposed constitutional amendment.

Though the country’s laws outline which age-counting method is applicable under which circumstances, many South Koreans are not deeply familiar with the nuances of the regulations. There are online age calculators that help people quickly determine how old they are under the various systems.

“If I try to fill out a form at a government office or a foreign embassy, I’m not sure what to put for my age,” said Ms. Lee, the producer in Seoul.

Age-based dynamics are also embedded in the Korean language, Professor Suh noted. “You can only consider those the same age as you your friends,” he said. “You would use terms like ‘eonni,’ ‘hyeong’ or ‘oppa’ to address those older than you,” he added, referring to a term used for older woman and two for older men.

“It would be better if people didn’t start their conversations by asking each other’s ages and started out as equals,” he said.

A recent survey found strong support in South Korea for adopting the international standard for determining age.Credit…Jean Chung for The New York Times

South Korea has a fundamentally top-down, hierarchal society, and aged-based ranking in groups sets expectations for one’s role, Professor Yoon said. When there is deviation from such roles, he said, many South Koreans feel uncomfortable.

“People in Korea don’t like having a younger person be their superior at work,” he said.

Jeon Hyuk-jin, a sales employee in Seoul, said he did not understand his fellow South Koreans’ obsession with age. Because Mr. Jeon entered college a few years later than most in his age group, most members of his graduating class were two years younger than he, which led to dicey moments.

Typically, upperclassmen are put in leadership roles. “Because my upperclassmen were younger than me, they didn’t know how to address me,” he said. “It was confusing and awkward, and I don’t think this way is always right.”

Professor Yoon doubted that abandoning the Korean age system would lead to broader social changes anytime soon.

“From a sociology perspective, customs are so deeply rooted in a society that change won’t happen overnight,” he said. “The change is desirable, but we’ll have to see.”

But other Koreans don’t see any benefit to changing the age system, or the hierarchy that underlies it. It represents more than a number, they say — it’s the foundation of human connection.

“It might be tiresome to keep track of everyone’s ages, but once you establish an older-younger relationship, the connection between people flourishes more naturally,” said Chung Hae-rang, a 63-year-old retired teacher from the city of Bucheon, just outside Seoul.

It also creates bonds in other ways, he said. If you change that system, he said, among college freshmen, for instance, “there would be some who would be permitted into bars and others who are not” under the international age system. If everyone born in the same year is the same age, that problem is eliminated, he added.

Cho Moon-ju, who works for a Seoul university, also said that the Korean system increases camaraderie among people — even strangers — who were born in the same year. That is how she has connected with other parents at her children’s schools, said Ms. Cho, who opposes Mr. Yoon’s plan to change the system.

Strangers born in the same year can also assume that they have been through similar difficulties, she said.

As an example, she recalled one of South Korea’s most devastating disasters — the 2014 accident in which nearly 300 high school students drowned on a ferry. “If you realize that you and someone you just met were both in the 11th grade when the Sewol ferry sank,” she said, “you share common, deep feelings.”

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