A Santa Monica man pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of failing to notify United States officials that he was working as an agent of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), as required by U.S. law.
John Joungwoong Yai, 59, a naturalized U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty this afternoon in United States District Court in Los Angeles. In an indictment, Yai was accused of operating within the United States at the direction of North Korean officials between December 1997 and April 2000. Court documents show that Yai was tasked by North Korean officials to obtain classified information and to identify and recruit other agents to meet with North Korean officials abroad.
Yai maintained contact with his North Korean handlers through facsimiles, E-mail messages and personal overseas meetings. The communications sent between Yai and his North Korean contacts were written with word substitution codes to conceal the true content of the communications.
In April 2000, Yai and his spouse traveled to the Czech Republic and Vienna to meet with a North Korean representative. Upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport from Zurich, Switzerland on April 20, 2000, Yai and his spouse declared to an official of the United States Customs Service that they were not carrying more than $10,000 in U.S. currency. In fact, a search revealed that they were carrying $18,179.
In addition to the charge related to being a North Korean agent, Yai pleaded guilty to three additional felony charges: failing to declare the more than $10,000 he was bringing into the country, making a false statement to the Customs Service at LAX, and making additional false statements to the Customs Service in August 2000 when he tried to recover the money.
Yai pleaded guilty before United States District Judge George H. King, who is scheduled to sentence the defendant on January 26. As a result of the guilty pleas, Yai faces a maximum statutory sentence of 25 years in federal prison.
Yai’s wife, Susan Youngja Yai, previously pleaded guilty to failing the declare the $18,179 that she and her husband brought into the United States. In September, Judge King sentence Susan Yai to one year of probation and ordered her to pay a $500 fine.
This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Customs Service.