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Century-old ‘Korean age’ triggers confusion over antivirus measures

Mixed use of Korean, international age in vaccine policy puzzles many, prompts calls for unified standards

People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok and Won Hee-ryong, Yoon’s campaign policy chief appear in a 59-second video clip on Yoon’s YouTube channel, introducing the party’s election promise to abolish the Korean age system, on Monday. (Yoon’s YouTube channel)
People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok and Won Hee-ryong, Yoon’s campaign policy chief appear in a 59-second video clip on Yoon’s YouTube channel, introducing the party’s election promise to abolish the Korean age system, on Monday. (Yoon’s YouTube channel)

The “Korean age” system came into the limelight Tuesday following leading presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol’s pledge to make the use of the international age system mandatory for all administrative matters.

Alongside the international age calculation that measures how many years and months that a person has lived since his or her birthday, the nation has kept its unique way of counting a newborn as being age 1 from birth.

This means a Korean baby, born on Dec. 31 last year, is two years old now in Korean age, while being less than a year old by the international standard. All Koreans become a year older every New Year’s Day, regardless of their actual birthdays. 

Adding onto this, some administrative and legal documents employ another age counting method of simply subtracting one‘s year of birth from the current year. This way, the baby is one year old, not two.

While many Koreans have grown accustomed to this age range of up to two years in their personal lives, the mixed use of the different systems in the public sphere has led to a major confusion recently. 

When the government earlier announced its plan to implement the vaccine pass mandate for children aged between 12 and 18 starting in March -- requiring them to present proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test conducted within 48 hours to enter multi-use facilities -- officials were referring to the legal Korean age. 

But vaccine eligibility – ages 12 or older -- is based on the international age system.  

Therefore, a child born in 2010, whose birthdate has yet to come, is not eligible for vaccination until their 12th birthday, but has become subject to the vaccine pass mandate on Jan. 1. In response to mounting complaints, the government decided to exclude those caught in-between from the youth vaccine pass system, scheduled to go into effect in March.  

Yoon’s pledge to get rid of confusions stemming from the different ways of counting one’s age came Monday against this backdrop.  

His People Power Party threw weight behind the candidate, unveiling a plan to seek revisions of related laws to abolish the Korean age system and promote the use of the standard international age system at all government and public institutions. 

“Calls are growing for a unified age calculating system as a number of bills such as the military service act or juvenile protection act stipulate the Korean age notion of getting a year older on New Year’s Day, while some government policies are implemented based on the international age,” the main opposition People Power Party said in a statement.

The Korean age system in which everyone becomes a year old at birth is known to have derived from China centuries ago. Its roots are in the ancient East Asian idea that time in a mother’s womb is also considered a part of life, according to historians. 

By Choi Jae-hee (cjh@heraldcorp.com)
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