A South Korean national pleaded guilty Monday in Los Angeles to attempting to smuggle thousands of California succulents worth more than $600,000 to Asia.
Bong Jun Kim, 46, entered his plea to a federal charge stemming from a scheme to illegally export Dudleya succulent plants pulled out of the ground last year at remote state parks in Northern California.
Kim, shackled and dressed in brown jail garb, required a translator to understand the proceedings in downtown Los Angeles. U.S. District Judge George Wu set sentencing for Sept. 16, at which time Kim faces up to five years in federal prison and a possible $250,000 fine, prosecutors said.
Kim — along with two fugitive co-defendants — removed the lotus-like succulents last year, took them to a nursery in San Diego and then transported the plants to a commercial exporter in Compton, planning to use an illegally obtained permit to ship the plants to South Korea, according to prosecutors.
Dudleya plants from are particularly valuable in Asia due to their unique physical features, including the color and shape of their leaves. Because growing the plants in nurseries takes years, smugglers are known to harvest wild, living Dudleya plants from the ground and export them to South Korea, where they are sold on the black market for as much as $100.
Upon his October arrival in Los Angeles via a one-way ticket from South Korea, co-defendant Byungsu Kim, 44, displayed records stating that his nursery had shipped 5,731 Dudleya plants — weighing 501 pounds — to South Korea on or about Sept. 12, and that the purported “place of origin” of the plants was San Diego County, federal prosecutors allege.
Byungsu Kim had traveled to the United States from South Korea more than 50 times since 2009, and had 80 plants seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2013, according to federal prosecutors.
After their arrival in Los Angeles, the defendants drove to various state parks where Dudleya plants grow, including DeMartin State Beach in Klamath, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park and Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino County, prosecutors say.
Law enforcement observed the defendants pull the plants out of the ground and then transport the harvested Dudleya plants to a nursery that Byungsu Kim operated in Vista, according to court documents.
Officials seized about 3,715 Dudleya plants — weighing 664 pounds — in 34 boxes at the Compton location. The value of the seized plants in Korea would be roughly $602,950, court papers show.
Prosecutors say Byungsu Kim and co-defendant Youngin Back, 45, have fled the United States.
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