Shopkeeper accused of talks with N. Korea
Thursday, February 6, 2003
LOS ANGELES -- A snack shop owner who authorities say was paid to communicate with North Korean officials through codes and meetings abroad -- as well as recruit other agents -- appeared in court Wednesday to face charges of failing to register with the federal government.
South Korea native John Joungwoong Yai, 59, has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and is a naturalized citizen. According to an affidavit by FBI agent James Chang, Yai regularly corresponded with North Korean officials, met with them overseas and worked to scout for and recruit other agents in the United States.
A criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court charged Yai with failing to register. All foreign agents who are not engaged in a legal commercial enterprise or acting in a diplomatic capacity must register.
Yai was also charged with making false statements to U.S. Customs officials. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
Yai appeared in federal court Wednesday and told a magistrate through an interpreter that he planned to hire a lawyer.
Federal investigators had no evidence that Yai obtained classified government documents, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles. Investigation were trying to determine whether Yai's actions posed any threat to national security, said FBI spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura.
Chang wrote that investigators bugged Yai's downtown office and intercepted faxes, e-mail and telephone calls -- often filled with code words -- between Yai and his North Korean handlers from December 1996 until June 2000.
In a fax intercepted in 1998 from Yai's office to a number believed to be inside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, Yai presented information about a potential recruit who had connections in Washington.
"He is an ideal candidate for recruitment who comes with good computer skills that is vital for today's living and has credentials of a reporter -- a big plus," he wrote.
Yai made repeated trips to Beijing; the FBI believes he traveled from there to North Korea. The FBI also said Yai and his wife came back from a meeting with a North Korean representative in the Czech Republic and Austria in April 2000 with $18,179 in cash.
Yai was detained pending a bail hearing scheduled for Friday.