US authorities have shut down a bizarre horticultural heist in Southern California, where a man pleaded guilty on Thursday for attempting to illegally export thousands of high-priced stolen succulents to South Korea.
Byungsu Kim worked with Youngin Back and Bong Jun Kim in a carefully planned operation to steal thousands of live Dudleya succulents from multiple national parks in northern California, according to a press release from the Department of Justice. They planned to ship the succulents from Compton, California to South Korea, where they could sell for more than $600,000 each.
The group harvested numerous live Dudleyas from protected public lands in California, including DeMartin State Beach, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Russian Gulch State Park.
Kim, the self-professed mastermind of the plan, later admitted that they did not have the necessary permits to legally harvest Dudleya plants.
A county agriculture official then came and conducted a routine inspection of the plants before they were exported. The poachers managed to successfully receive the necessary certification after Kim told the official that they were only exporting 1,397 Dudleya plants to South Korea. But local law enforcement found more than 3,000 Dudleya plants in boxes labeled “Rush” and “Live plants” after investigating the cargo at the shipping company. Kim was arrested on state charges soon after and his passport was confiscated.
In 2019, Kim and Back crossed the border into Mexico on foot after learning of the federal charges issued against them after this scheme. Kim then used a passport he’d fraudulently obtained from the South Korea consulate in Los Angeles to fly to China and then South Korea. He was later extradited to the U.S. from South Africa after he was arrested there for conducting a similar scheme. He has been in federal custody since.
According to the press release, Back remains a fugitive. Bong Jun Kim pleaded guilty in July 2019 but has already been released after serving just four months in federal custody.
This scheme is just the latest of many attempts to poach Dudleyas from protected areas in California. A bill was recently introduced by California Assemblymember Chris Ward (D-San Diego) to stop poachers from harvesting Dudleyas from their natural habitats. If passed, poachers could be fined anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000 depending on the number of previous offences they have.