South Korean man sentenced in scheme to illegally export live succulent plants from California

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The ringleader of a scheme to illegally export to South Korea live succulent plants stolen from Northern California parks — and worth at least $150,000 —was sentenced this week to two years in federal prison, authorities said.

South Korean national Byungsu Kim, 46, who was sentenced in federal court in Los Angeles on Thursday, was also ordered to pay $3,985 in restitution to the state of California for expenses related to replanting the stolen plants, according to a news release by the U.S. attorney's office.

In May 2019, Kim fled to Mexico after he learned that he was being charged by the United States federal government with attempting to illegally export over $600,000 worth of Dudleya plants, commonly referred to as live-forevers.

Over 3,700 wild plants were poached from public lands in Northern California, at locations like Mendocino County, DeMartin State Beach and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, by Kim and two other accomplices, according to federal prosecutors.

Kim, 46, orchestrated the illegal harvest operation and falsely told agriculture officials the plants were grown in San Diego County, where he operated the Vista nursery, authorities said.

In October 2018, Kim arrived in the United States and told a Customs and Border Protection officer he was going purchase plants in Mexico, send them to the U.S. and then to Korea and China as part of his business, authorities said. He was soon joined by Youngin Back and Bong Jun Kim, who just arrived from South Korea.

In a few days, the men loaded up two rental cars with boxes, empty backpacks, rubber totes and traveled to public lands in Northern California, where they covertly harvested Dudleya plants, according to an 11-page indictment. Over the next few weeks, the three South Korean nationals zigzagged across Northern California where the Dudleya grows in the wild and harvested the plants. After each trip, the men unloaded the plants at Kim’s nursery in San Diego.

Just before Kim planned to ship the plants to South Korea, he requested an official inspection from the county agriculture office and said that the documentation for the shipment should list roughly 1,400 Dudleya plants grown in San Diego County, according to court documents.

The men unloaded the plants at a commercial exporter in Compton and labeled their shipment “Live Plants.” But after they left, local police served a search warrant. Investigators found more than3,700 Dudleya plants and also discovered that the men did not have a scientific permit or a federal permit to harvest the plants, according to federal prosecutors.

Kim admitted to orchestrating the scheme and federal authorities confiscated his passport. But in January 2019, prosecutors say Kim lied to the South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles and he was given a new passport. Kim and Back fled to the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing on foot and escaped into Mexico, then flew to China and then to South Korea, according to prosecutors.

Kim reemerged in October 2019 when he was arrested by authorities in South Africa, where he was charged related to a similar scheme of illegally collecting plants from protected areas in that nation that he planned to export to South Korea, the federal government said.

Bong Jun Kim pleaded guilty in July 2019 to one count of attempting to export plants taken in violation of California law. He served four months in federal custody and was released in October 2019.

Back, the third accomplice, remains a fugitive.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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