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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea sees increasing moves to scrap 'Korean age'

09:00 January 29, 2019

By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, Jan. 29 (Yonhap) -- Early this month, Rep. Hwang Ju-hong of the minor opposition Party for Democracy and Peace submitted a bill that has drawn surprisingly keen public attention.

The proposed legislation, jointly handed in by nine other fellow lawmakers of rival parties, calls for mandatory use of the standard "international" age system at all government and public institutions, while recommending that private sector organizations such as companies adopt the same system for administrative matters.

A source of amazement to many foreigners who are unfamiliar with this country, but otherwise common knowledge to most expats living here, South Korea has kept its unique way of counting a person's age alongside international age.

The most widely known system, referred to as "Korean age," is the method whereby one year is simply added to a person's Western age calculating how many years and months that person has lived since his or her birthday.

So if a man was born on January 1, 1980, he is 39 by the international standard but would introduce himself as being 40 years of age in Korea.

Everyone also gets a year older on New Year's Day, rather than on their actual birthdays.

Such tradition is known to have derived from ancient East Asian thinking that counts the gestational period as part of a person's age, according to experts. The time in the mother's womb has been considered as also part of life.

Rep. Hwang Ju-hong of the minor opposition Party for Democracy and Peace speaks during a parliamentary meeting on May 16, 2018. (Yonhap)

Complications can get in the way in legal matters. While the international age is used in most cases of official government documentation in Korea, legal age under a handful of laws, including the Military Service Act, is counted by subtracting the year of birth from the calendar year. For instance, everyone who was born in 1980 is age 39, regardless of whether his or her birthday has passed this year or not.

This counting method has apparently made the paperwork easier for government officials in the country, where all able-bodied men are obliged to serve in the military for around two years.

The mixed use of Korean age as well as international age has often been cited as a source of confusion that has unnecessary social costs.

For example, a woman who was born on March 29, 1995, is 23 years (and 10 months) old in the international sense, 24 under some Korean laws and also 25 in Korean age.

It is also a hassle for mothers who have a child born in December. In the new year, they likely find themselves having to answer the simple question of how old the baby is by elaborating that he or she is two years old by Korean age but is in truth only weeks old.

The news on the submission of the bill has spurred a flood of comments on the Internet in support of the move, calling it a "timely proposal" and even lauding Hwang as a lawmaker who "actually does his job."

"The bill basically aims to minimize unnecessary tangible and intangible costs incurring from a mishmash of varied age calculation methods," Hwang said earlier. "This is also an opportunity for us to put this up for discussion so as to address various issues, such as social hierarchy defined by age difference and its adverse effects that we have overlooked."

It is not the first time South Koreans have debated the age system. In fact, it's been a frequently mentioned topic in newspaper commentaries around this time for each of the past few years.

But no legislation had ever been put forward until now. Nor had so many petitions like in recent weeks been filed on the online site of the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae calling for the abolition of the Korean age system. They have gained over 6,000 signatories.

"South Korea is the only nation in the world where every citizen gets a year older on the first day of the new year," one petitioner wrote. "Japan and China, which once used the same system, now use international age, and even North Korea does so ... I would like (the government) to start taking steps to scrap Korean age."

This file photo shows newborns in a general hospital on June 28, 2018. (Yonhap)

A survey conducted by local broadcaster SBS in January last year showed that 92.4 percent of 500 respondents agreed with the idea of standardizing the calculation method for consistency and convenience. Sixty-two percent favored Western age over Korean age while 38.2 percent preferred the status quo.

Hwang mentioned that the long-held custom of checking age as a prerequisite to building a relationship largely accounts for the continued use of the Korean age system to date.

"We still use the system without question because that's what we've been using since the old days. It's more of a matter of custom and culture," he told local media.

Choi Jae-young, an office worker in Seoul, remembers how he had to explain the unique age system to his foreign classmates when he was in America on a university exchange program several years back.

"They were curious to learn of it. But they were more surprised to find out that, in Korean society, your relationship with a person really starts only after you tell each other how old you are, because that determines how you should address and speak to each other," Choi said, referring to the varied forms of politeness in the Korean language.

Older generations tend to be skeptical about the idea, arguing that Korean age is also part of culture that Koreans should embrace.

"I don't see so much trouble living with our own way of counting (age), which is our tradition. It's hard to understand why we make a fuss out of it," Kim Jin-su, a 62-year-old retiree, said.

Hwang has noted that no change can be made without effort and time, promising to work for the passage of the bill so as to reflect the growing calls from the public.

"Legislation won't change the way we do it overnight, but that shouldn't keep us from trying to make a change, step by step, to something closer to the rest of the world," he said earlier.

elly@yna.co.kr
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