Cracking the Information Blockade: Advancing Freedom of Information in North Korea

National Endowment for Democracy

1201 Pennsylvania Ave NW Suite 1100

September 19, 2023, 9:00 am EDT to 1:30 pm EDT


This event will be held in-person only. RSVPs must be received by September 13, 2023.  

North Korea’s informational blockade is unparalleled in the modern world. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the regime shut down its borders and used pandemic prevention measures to justify severe crackdowns against outside information. The regime introduced draconian new laws that imposed penalties, up to and including execution, for those found viewing or distributing “reactionary ideology and culture,” including South Korean dramas and foreign news. Despite such steep penalties, demand for objective outside information has never been higher in North Korea. Technological strides and marketization have allowed residents to evade government controls and continue to seek out and consume foreign content, ranging from K-pop to civic education.

The tension between the regime’s isolationist policies and residents’ curiosity about the outside world lies at the heart of determining North Korea’s future. Thoughtfully formulated outside content can empower North Koreans to aspire for rights and freedoms and conceive of a democratic future. Unification Media Group (UMG), a Seoul-based media nonprofit, stands at the frontlines of this information battle. With over 15 years of experience working to provide North Koreans with the information they need, UMG prides itself on its one-of-a-kind feedback mechanisms to gather responses from residents in-country and ensure that they receive the objective information they seek.

On September 19, UMG will launch an international conference for freedom of information in North Korea in partnership with NED. UMG will shed light on the black box of North Korea’s media environment and explore emerging opportunities for access, while defectors share their firsthand experience of life in North Korea and the transformative impact foreign content had on their lives.

Simultaneous interpretation (Korean, English) will be available for all guests. 

Featured Speakers

In 2001, Kwangbaek Lee started studying North Korean ideology and ways to democratize North Korea with Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean to have defected and largely responsible for crafting the state ideology of North Korea. This experience motivated him to dedicate his life to North Korean human rights and democratizing North Korea. In 2002, he began working as a researcher at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. Kwangbaek decided to apply his experience listening to North Korea’s radio broadcasts targeting South Korea in the mid-1990s to his North Korean human rights activism. In 2005, he started participating in radio broadcasting to North Korea as a host for Open Radio for North Korea and Radio Free Chosun. In 2007, he was promoted to the President of Radio Free Chosun and went on to form Unification Media Group (UMG) in 2014 where he is currently the President.

Seong Guk Choi was the first North Korean defector to become a webtoon author. His career includes studying children’s art at Pyongyang University of Fine Arts and working at the Korean April 26th Animation Studio. After his defection in 2010, Choi gained fame for his serial webtoon (webcomic) “Rodong Simmun [a pun on a North Korean newspaper].” In collaboration with UMG, Seongguk currently produces content focused on the human rights situation in North Korea and issues with the North Korean regime.

Jeong-ah Yang worked as a reporter at Daily NK for 10 years, and now leads the radio broadcast team at Unification Media Group. She graduated from Jeonbuk National University with a degree in business administration.

Andrew Yeo is a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. He is also a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In addition to his most recent book, “State, Society, and Markets in North Korea” (Cambridge University Press 2021), he is the author or co-editor of four other books: “Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century” (Stanford University Press, 2019);  “North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks” (Cambridge University Press 2018); “Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests” (Cambridge University Press 2011); and “Living in an Age of Mistrust: An Interdisciplinary Study of Declining Trust in Contemporary Society and Politics and How to Get it Back” (Routledge Press 2017). Yeo is currently working on a project that examines South Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific region and how South Korea can support a rules-based order outside its traditional focus on Northeast Asia. He is also conducting research that examines marketization in North Korea and its impact on state-society relations.

Ji Hyeon Kang defected from North Korea in 2009 and, after arriving in Seoul, attended Seoul’s Hanyang University where she majored in anthropology. In 2017, she founded an online shopping mall, and in 2021 she launched her company “I-Story,” a fashion brand that showcases defector stories, and is currently the company’s CEO.

Damon Wilson is president and chief executive officer of the National Endowment for Democracy. Prior to joining NED, Mr. Wilson served as executive vice president at the Atlantic Council, as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), as executive secretary and chief of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and as deputy director in the private office of the NATO Secretary General. Mr. Wilson began his career with Save the Children in Rwanda. He is a graduate of Duke University and Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.


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