A Korean American businessman pleaded guilty Thursday to failing to register as an agent of the North Korean government and failing to disclose to customs officials more than $18,000 he allegedly received for his work on behalf of the Pyongyang regime.
In a plea agreement filed under seal, John Joungwoong Yai, a naturalized U.S. citizen, offered to cooperate with authorities, U.S. District Judge George H. King disclosed at Thursday’s court proceedings. No further details were revealed.
Yai, 59, of Santa Monica, faces a likely one- to two-year prison term when he is sentenced Jan. 26. He will receive credit for three months spent behind bars before his release on bond earlier this year.
For many years, Yai had been an advocate within Los Angeles’ large Korean American community of the reunification of South and North Korea. He made several trips to North Korea, China and Europe, where he met with North Korean officials.
Yai also came under investigation by FBI counterintelligence agents who conducted covert searches, telephone taps and other forms of electronic surveillance of Yai for nearly seven years.
In February, Yai was arrested in connection with a trip that he and his wife, Susan Youngja, took to Vienna and Prague in 2000. They returned with more than $18,000 in cash that Yai allegedly received from North Korean intelligence agents.
Yai was indicted on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent, making false statements to U.S. customs inspectors and illegally transporting more than $10,000 in cash into the United States.
Prosecutors said he had been providing information to the North Korean government about U.S. military, economic and political trends, and was trying to recruit other Korean Americans to work for the Communist regime.
But in ordering his release on $400,000 bond in April, a federal magistrate noted that the information that Yai was accused of sending North Korea consisted only of publicly available documents and press clippings.
In papers filed with the court, defense attorney William Genego also cited a four-year-old FBI memo that said that the bureau’s Los Angeles field office wanted criminal charges brought against Yai, not to send him to jail but to “neutralize” him and “send a message” to other supporters of North Korea in the United States.
Though Yai’s attorney, family members and community supporters described him as a loyal American citizen, federal prosecutors contended that his true obedience was to North Korea.
In a letter dated July 3, 2001, Yai wrote to his North Korean contact that he was starting a business and would no longer be able to “do our work.”
The letter, which was downloaded from his home computer and made part of the court record, professed “my continuing love toward Big Father,” an apparent reference to North Korea’s deceased founder, Kim Il Sung. It also referred to South Korea as “the enemy.”
Yai’s wife pleaded guilty earlier to failing to declare the cash that she and her husband had in their possession when they returned to Los Angeles from their European trip.
She was sentenced to one year’s probation.