(CN) — A federal judge sentenced a South Korean national to two years in prison Thursday for stealing and attempting to export rare succulent plants to Asia.
Byungsu Kim, 46, has admitted to harvesting more than 3,000 dudleya plants from three remote state parks in Northern California, along with two other South Korean men in 2018. According to a Department of Justice sentencing memo, Kim was the "ringleader," recruiting the others and paying their expenses.
Authorities believe Kim has a long history of succulent smuggling. According to the memo, Kim "had traveled to the United States more than 50 times since 2009. Customs records show that he was traveling for succulent-related purposes and often with tens of thousands of dollars in cash (sometimes declared, sometime not) and fake phytosanitary certificates."
Federal prosecutors say Kim "almost certainly smuggled far more than 122,316 dudleya plants between 2013 and 2018."
At Thursday's sentencing hearing, conducted via Zoom, Kim's attorney Jeremy Lessem argued there was no evidence his client had previously smuggled plants, adding: "Mr. Kim does not deny that he has purchased plants from nurseries and other people in California for purposes of exporting to South Korean."
Dudleyas are slow-growing, fragile plants that are often poached and smuggled into Asia and sold on the black market. The government's expert estimated the 3,000 plants might have sold for between $113,755 and $255,415 on the Korean black market, though the figure could well have been much higher. Lessem argued Kim's own take would have been much less, since he would have sold the plants wholesale.
"The idea that this was some hugely profitable enterprise that was making Mr. Kim extremely wealthy is not supported by the reports," Lessem told the judge.
State and federal regulators list 10 species of dudleya as threatened or endangered. This past September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law establishing penalties of up to $500,000 for poaching dudleya plants.
Authorities arrested Kim and the two others on state charges after they took the 3,000 plants to a shipping company in Compton, near Los Angeles. Their passports were confiscated and they were released on bail. But Kim and another defendant obtained new passports by lying to the Korean consulate. They fled the country, crossing into Mexico through the Tijuana-San
Yisidro border on foot, then flying to South Korea via China.
Months later, authorities in South Africa arrested Kim for illegally collecting plants from protected areas to be smuggled. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison. Though he served a small fraction of that sentence, he stayed in South African prison for another nine months while awaiting extradition to the U.S., which finally happened in October 2020.
Lessem argued that the time spent in the South African jail — "in deplorable conditions" — should be taken into account in sentencing.
"The time that Mr. Kim has served has been extremely hard time," said Lessem. "I believe he’s learned his lesson, and certainly been adequately punished for what he has done."
Kim grew up poor in South Korea, and has worked as a farmer for much of his life. Since his indictment, he said, both his parents have entered a nursing home facility, his wife left him and he has not seen his two children in three years. He speaks no English and has felt isolated in jail. Two months ago, he was assaulted, he said, the result of a misunderstanding. His jaw was wired shut, and when he spoke at the hearing, it was with great difficulty and through a translator.
He read a letter, apologizing profusely and bowing multiple times to the camera.
"All these things happened because of my lack of knowledge," he said through the translator. "If I had known a little bit more about America, if I had known a little bit more about the laws in America, I would not have done this stupid wrongdoing." He added: "Please forgive me, forgive my wrongdoings and allow me to go back to Korea."
U.S. District Judge George Wu sentenced Kim to 24 months, on the low end of the sentencing guidelines, and one year less than the 36 months the government had asked for. The judge said he did take into account the additional nine months Kim spent in the South African jail, as well as the communication issues he's had.
Kim will also be credited with time served, which means he will wind up being in custody for only another nine months. He was also ordered to pay $3,985 in restitution to the state of California.