Why South Koreans are two years older at home than they are abroad

Lee Dong Kil’s daughter Lee Yoon Seol celebrates the 100th day of her birth in Daejeon, South Korea Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

People living in South Korea have two ages - but that could be set to change.

A politician in the ultra-modern Asian country is working to overturn a centuries-old tradition which sees babies become one-year-old on the day of their birth - and then get an additional year tacked on when the calendar hits January 1.

The move comes amid complaints the system is an anachronistic, time-wasting custom which drags down an otherwise forward thinking nation.

For parents whose babies are born in December, it can be especially painful.

One hour after his daughter’s birth in the central city of Daejeon at 10pm on December 31 of last year, Lee Dong Kil posted the news on social media.

Lee Dong Kil holds his daughter Lee Yoon Seol as his wife Ryu Da Gyeong sits at their house in Daejeon Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

His friends immediately showered him with congratulatory messages.

“An hour later, when the new year began, they phoned me again to say congratulations for my baby becoming two years old,” said Mr Lee, who is 32 internationally but 34 in South Korea.

“I thought, ‘Ah, right. She’s now two years old, though it’s been only two hours since she was born. What the heck!'”

  • Why does South Korea use the strange age system?

The origins of the traditional age reckoning system are not clear.

Being one-year-old at birth may be linked to the time a baby spends in its mothers’ womb or to an ancient Asian numerical system that did not have the concept of zero.

Becoming a year older on January 1 is even harder to explain.

It could be that ancient Koreans cared a lot about the year in which they were born in the Chinese 60-year cycle but, without regular calendars, did not care much about the specific day they were born; so they mostly ignored the day of their birth and instead marked another year of age on the day of the Lunar New Year, according to senior curator Jung Yonhak, at the National Folk Museum of Korea.

This may have then shifted to the solar new year on January 1 as the South began embracing the Western calendar.

  • Is South Korea the only country to use the system?

South Koreans use the system in daily life - including when it comes to dating. Credit: AP

Perhaps unsurprisingly, yes.

Neighbouring North Korea uses the Western age calculating system, but they have a twist: they follow their own calendar based on the birth of national founder and president-for-life Kim Il Sung.

The year of your birth is still incredibly important in South Korea and lumps linked children together for life, for example through education.

Other Asian countries, including Japan and Vietnam, abandoned the Chinese-style age system amid an influx of Western culture.

Officially, South Korea has used Western-style calculations since the early 1960s.

But its citizens still embrace the old-fashioned system in their daily lives because the government has done little to get people to change over to the Western style.

Most South Koreans are simply accustomed to living with two ages.

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Lee Dong Kil with his wife and daughter Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP
  • How do people celebrate the anniversary of their birth?

People do not hold massive joint birthday parties on New Year’s Day; they just celebrate their birthday on the days they were born.

Young people consider themselves another year old on solar New Year’s Day (January 1) while older people often use the Lunar New Year’s Day.

Many family restaurants do not charge babies if they are 36 months old or younger, so parents often calculate their babies’ ages under the Western method when they are dining out.

Some South Koreans still worry that the practice makes their nation look odd on the international stage.

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South Korean women in traditional attire in the nation's capital, Seoul. Credit: AP
  • What does it mean for people from abroad?

Many foreign journalists in Seoul ask Koreans what year and month they were born to calculate their Western age for news stories.

There are also some who say the concept of “Korean age” encourages a fixation on age-based social standing in this seniority-based country.

In South Korea, those born in the same year often treat each other as equals, while people must use honorific titles to address those born earlier, rather than directly using their names.

Ahn Chang-gun, from the south-eastern city of Gimhae, said he felt “empty” when his first child became two on January 1 2013, about two weeks after his wife delivered him after eight years of marriage.

“He was this precious baby that we finally had, but I felt that all of a sudden two years had just gone by and yet I hadn’t done anything for my baby,” said Mr Ahn.

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Seo Hyo Sun was upset when her baby was born early and became two just 48 hours later/ Credit: Lee Jin-man/AP

Parents whose babies are born in December often worry about their children falling behind others born earlier in the same year, though worries gradually disappear as their children age.

When Seo Hyo Sun, from Buchon, just west of Seoul, was taken to hospital to get a caesarean section on December 29, she could not stop weeping because her baby’s due date was supposed to be January 7.

“Tears kept flowing. … My doctor told me the baby wanted to come out today so let’s just celebrate,” said Ms Seo, 31 in international age.

“When I awoke from my anaesthesia, I felt really grateful … because my baby was born healthy. That was enough.”

  • How is South Korea planning to change the age system?

In January, politician Hwang Ju-hong tabled a bill aimed at requiring the government to put international ages in official documents and encouraging citizens to go with their international ages in everyday life.

It is the first legislative attempt to abolish “Korean age”.

“It is aimed at resolving confusion and inefficiency caused by the mixed use of age-counting systems,” Hwang said in the proposed legislation.

Hwang’s office said a parliamentary committee discussion and a public hearing on the issue are expected in coming months.

Choi Min Kyung says the age system isn't such a bad thing after all. Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

Surveys in recent years showed more South Koreans supported international age though it was not clear how seriously they wanted a change.

“If we use international age, things could get more complicated because it’s a society that cares so much about which year you were born,” said Lim KyoungJae, 46, head of the Seoul-based Miko Travel agency.

“We should also definitely count the time of a baby being conceived and growing in its mother’s womb.”

Mr Lim’s employee Choi Min Kyung, who is 26 internationally and 28 in South Korea, disagreed.

“It’s good to be two years younger … (especially) when you meet men” on blind dates, Ms Choi said with a laugh.

“There is a big difference between 26 and 28.”