A South Korean national who once ran a Vista nursery and is charged with attempting to illegally export thousands of lotus-like California succulents is expected to plead guilty this week.
Byungsu Kim, 46, is now set to enter the plea on Thursday in federal court.
He faces a count of attempting to export plants taken in violation of state law, which carries a sentence of up to five years behind bars, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Authorities say he and two partners pulled the plants from the ground in remote state parks because they were worth $600,000 in Asia.
After he was charged in 2018, the defendant fled to Tijuana before federal authorities could arrest him, then traveled to South Korea. He was later arrested in South Africa and extradited to the U.S. in October last year.
Kim and co-defendants allegedly removed the lotus-like Dudleya succulents three years ago, took them to a nursery in San Diego and then transported the plants to a commercial exporter in Compton.
They planned to use an illegally obtained permit to ship the plants to South Korea, federal prosecutors allege.
Dudleya plants are particularly valuable in Asia due to their unique 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 each.
He initially arrived in Los Angeles in October 2018 arrival on a one-way ticket from South Korea. He possessed records stating that his nursery had shipped 5,731 Dudleya plants, weighing 501 pounds, to South Korea.
The purported “place of origin” of the plants was San Diego County, according to federal prosecutors.
He had traveled to the U.S. from South Korea more than 50 times since 2009, and had 80 plants seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2013, prosecutors allege.
After their arrival in Los Angeles, the three 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, according to prosecutors.
Law enforcement personnel observed the defendants pull the plants out of the ground and then transport the harvested Dudleyas to the nursery Kim operated, 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.
Bong Jun Kim, 44, pleaded guilty in 2019 to a federal charge stemming from a scheme and was sentenced to time served. Prosecutors say the third defendant, Youngin Back, 47, fled the U.S. and remains a fugitive.
– City News Service