Korea Countdown / North Korea Report

In April 1993, a phone call from John Gustaveson changed my life. I had met John in the 1980s, when he was taking the M.Phil in Development Studies at IDS: the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex. He was now working in Seoul for Merit Communications, a leading British-owned local public relations company.

Apparently as a result of reading my book-length report <i>Korea’s Coming Reunification</i>, published a year earlier by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Bill Rylance, Merit’s CEO, decided there was, er, merit – and more to the point, a market – in consultancy on North Korea. More broadly, the idea was to encourage foreign firms to do what they mostly didn’t do then and still don’t now: namely, think hard about how the other Korea, and ultimate reunification, should be factored into their plans in South Korea.

So Bill formed a new division, Merit Consulting, and hired Michael Breen: also British, then a journalist (for the Times and Guardian, inter alia), long resident in Seoul, and subsequently the author of the best-selling book The Koreans, an excellent introduction to the peninsula. I was hired too, as main writer of what launched in September 1993 as Korea Countdown. An 8-page two-column tabloid, the masthead described it as “a monthly newsletter preparing business for developments on the Korean peninsula”. We covered North Korean economy and politics, inter-Korean ties, and much more: taking on serious topics in a breezy and sometimes irreverent style.

Korea Countdown quickly established a blue-chip subscription base, including leading multinationals, major embassies, media, and ministries. In 1994 John and Mike set up their own firm, Breen & Gustaveson Ltd (B&G), and KC continued under that auspice. After 21 issues as a tabloid, from mid-1995 it was reborn as North Korea Report (NKR): now in ringbound format, and twice as long at around 30 pages. The author’s wage did not double pro rata, but I was having far too much fun to complain. Not only had this enabled me to go part time in my university work, which was starting to pall. But more importantly, at last I had an outlet for a wealth of information and ideas on North Korea, which it seemed important to have more widely known and discussed.

But all good things come to an end. Both Mike and John were offered posts elsewhere. B&G carried on, but closed for other reasons early in 1997: the last NKR appeared in February 1997. My first reaction was a frantic effort to keep it going, until it sunk in that 1. it had never actually made any money, perhaps due to being quite highly priced; 2. management has never been my strong suit (couldn’t organize the proverbial festivity in the brewery, to be honest); and 3. although this was my main source of income, I was overworking and could probably get by without it. As indeed I have for five years now.

Yet I like to think the legacy lives on. The 40-odd issues of KC/NKR add up to several hundred pages of solid analysis of North Korea in a detail that was rare at the time. We never had quite enough subscribers, yet those we did have were enthusiastic fans. We got the odd scoop, as when Mike Breen interviewed Kim Il-sung. (Jealous? moi?) Our lifespan included the 1994 nuclear crisis, when as is now known the peninsula came far too close for comfort to a second Korean War: a risk we warned the US against, loudly. Clinton saw the light and backed off; one can only hope Bush will do the same soon.

One of these days, I hope to get some or even all of KC/NKR up on this site. Till then, you’ll just have to take my word for it. It was good, we had fun: what more can one ask? Thanks to everyone who made it happen. And I never went back to college.

UPDATE, March 2004: Sample issues of <a href=”korea-countdown-12.pdf“>Korea Countdown</a> and <a href=”north-korea-report-may-1996.pdf“>North Korea Report</a> are now online. Note. PDFs no longer available.

We hope to add the full set of both in due course. Watch this space!