Federal authorities on Wednesday accused a Korean American businessman of working for North Korea in a quest to obtain "top secret" documents and recruit agents who would infiltrate the U.S. government.
One day after he was arrested without incident at his Santa Monica townhome, John Joungwoong Yai, 59, appeared in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on charges that he knowingly served as a North Korea agent without notifying the U.S. government of his action.
Yai and his wife, Susan Youngja Yai, also were charged with two counts of lying to U.S. Customs officials by failing to declare $18,179 -- most in $100 bills -- that authorities allege a North Korean official paid to Yai during clandestine meetings in Prague and Vienna in April 2000.
For more than seven years, Yai has been under investigation by FBI counterintelligence officials, who received authorization from the nation's top secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington to conduct covert searches, telephone taps and other forms of electronic surveillance.
Although Yai was not charged with espionage Wednesday, federal authorities said that was only because they had not uncovered evidence that he was ever successful in illegally securing classified documents for North Korea, one of a handful of nations listed by the U.S. State Department as having sponsored terrorism.
"The protection of this nation's security is the FBI's highest priority," said Assistant FBI Director Ronald L. Iden, who heads the agency's Los Angeles division. "The investigation that led to yesterday's arrest should send a clear message to any country that would attempt to compromise our nation's security that we will leave no stone unturned to defeat such efforts."
FBI sources said the government has not yet disclosed everything it has learned about Yai's activities.
"Not every shred of what we have on Mr. Yai is in this first affidavit," said one FBI agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "So the government of North Korea needs to wonder what else the FBI knows."
At the North Korean Mission to the United Nations in New York, a woman who refused to identify herself said no one was available to talk to the news media Wednesday.
The bespectacled Yai, wearing a plaid jacket, sweatpants and sandals, made a brief appearance in federal court Wednesday afternoon. Yai's arraignment, and a hearing to determine whether he is eligible for bail, were put off until Friday at his request. Yai, who is seeking private counsel, will remain in federal custody until then on charges that could send him to prison for 20 years. His wife, an employee at Hanmi Bank in Koreatown, remains free and is expected to be arraigned in the near future.
At Wednesday's hearing, Yai wore a headset through which the judge's comments were translated from English to Korean.
Yai was expressionless through much of the short session, answering simply "yes" to a number of questions posed by the judge about whether he understood the proceedings and his rights under federal law. At one point, he politely corrected U.S. Magistrate Judge Victor B. Kenton's pronunciation of his name, which is pronounced "yay."
The FBI said its investigation is continuing and would not comment on whether additional arrests are expected. Nor was it clear why federal authorities decided to file charges against Yai now, after investigating him since 1995.
The court papers released Wednesday provided virtually no details about documents that Yai may have attempted to obtain or provided to the North Korean government. In fact, in one intercepted 1997 fax, Yai's alleged North Korean handlers encouraged him to provide information beyond that which is publicly available. "Do not send anything that has been revealed in the newspaper or radio," read a handwritten note found in a 1998 covert search of his office.
In the 80-page affidavit in support of the arrest warrant, FBI agent James G. Chang asserted that Yai's travels abroad, unexplained payments of cash, and coded means of communications led authorities to conclude Yai was working for the North Korean intelligence service.
"Yai was an agent of North Korea because he ... received and responded to tasking by North Korea, most evidently tasking to recruit another agent or subagent and ... was paid by North Korea for his services," wrote Chang, who is assigned to the National Security Division of the FBI office in Los Angeles.
In trips to China, North Korea and elsewhere, Chang alleged, Yai demonstrated his willingness to illegally obtain top secret information -- both directly and by recruiting someone to assist in the covert "conspiracy."
Probe Began in 1995
Beginning about December 1995, Chang wrote, the FBI put Yai under surveillance, and one year later received authorization through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to engage in secret searches, wiretaps and other high-tech electronic monitoring.