LOS ANGELES – Three South Korean nationals were charged today in a federal grand jury indictment with attempting to illegally export to Asia more than $600,000 in live Dudleya succulent plants that they had pulled out of the ground at remote state parks in Northern California.
The two-count indictment charges each of the following defendants with conspiracy to knowingly export plants from the United States that had been taken in violation of California law, and attempting to export plants taken in violation of state law:
- Byungsu Kim, 44, who operates a nursery in Vista and is a fugitive;
- Youngin Back, 45, who also is a fugitive; and
- Bong Jun Kim, 44, who is in federal custody.
According to the indictment, the defendants arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from their native South Korea in October 2018 to harvest wild Dudleya plants from coastal habitats in Northern California and ship them back to South Korea. Native Dudleya plants from coastal habitats in Northern California 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 in Northern California and export the live plants to Asia, where they are sold on the black market.
Upon his October 2018 arrival in Los Angeles via a one-way ticket from South Korea, Byungsu Kim displayed records stating that his nursery had shipped 5,731 Dudleya plants (501 pounds) to South Korea on or about September 12, 2018, and that the purported “place of origin” of the plants was San Diego County. Since 2009, Byungsu Kim had traveled to the United States from South Korea more than 50 times, and in 2013 had 80 plants seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
After their October 2018 arrival in Los Angeles, the trio allegedly drove to various state parks where Dudleya plants grow, including DeMartin State Beach in Klamath, California, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino County. Law enforcement surveilling the defendants observed them pull the plants out of the ground and then transport the harvested Dudleya plants to a nursery that Byungsu Kim operated in Vista, located in San Diego County, court documents state. Prior to the plants’ shipment, Byungsu Kim scheduled an inspection with a county agriculture official at the Vista nursery and falsely told her the government-issued certificate necessary for the plants’ exportation should list 1,397 Dudleya plants (259 pounds) for export to South Korea and that the “place of origin” of the plants was San Diego County, the indictment alleges.
The defendants then transported the plants to a commercial exporter in Compton, to whom Byungsu Kim intended to present the fraudulently obtained certificate so the Dudleya plants could be shipped to South Korea, the indictment alleges. The defendants were arrested in Compton last year and currently face state criminal charges in Del Norte County Superior Court. Law enforcement seized approximately 3,715 Dudleya plants (664 pounds) in 34 boxes at the Compton location and the value of the seized plants in Korea would be approximately $602,950, court papers state. Two of the defendants, Byungsu Kim and Youngin Back, have since fled the United States.
If convicted on all counts, the defendants face a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison.
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This matter was investigated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Customs and Border Protection;
County of San Diego, Agriculture, Weights and Measures; U.S. Department of Agriculture, and California State Parks.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Matthew W. O’Brien and Dennis Mitchell of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.