Authorities close in on human-smuggling operation

Federal authorities are closing in on a human-smuggling operation involving South Korean immigrants preying on and profiting from other South Koreans.

The smugglers ferry their human cargo from Canada through Washington state to Los Angeles and elsewhere, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle.

"Rest stops" are made in Federal Way. Those who are smuggled in get absorbed into mainstream society or, in the worst cases, are forced into prostitution.

Federal prosecutors last week charged a man and a woman with human smuggling — a part of what is being characterized as one of the most prolific smuggling cells operating through the Canadian and Mexican borders.

The charges were the result of an on-going, two-year investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Several court records in the probe remain under seal, but in those that have been made public, and through interviews with federal prosecutors and investigators about smuggling in general, a picture of a typical South Korean operation is starting to emerge.

Recruiters court victims through newspaper ads in South Korea and in the U.S., generally charging from $6,000 to $12,000, promising them better lives, according to assistant U.S. attorneys Ye-Ting Woo and Tessa Gorman.

Brokers in South Korea, Mexico and Canada then arrange international flights to bring the people over from South Korea, the prosecutors said. Drivers pick up "loads" at the borders and bring them into the country.

Other brokers arrange temporary housing, or locate jobs: Men often drive taxis; women work as hostesses in "room salons," that is, bars catering to South Korean businessmen. Being a hostess sometimes means providing sex, according to prosecutors.

Such smuggling cells are loosely operated, involving various independent players, including so-called "facilitators" who grease the connection between, say, a broker and a driver, the prosecutors said.

And since these are money-making operations, loan-shark systems are set up for those who need to pay off their smuggling debts, known as "il sunoh ri" in Korean, the attorneys said.

Local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to characterize the size or frequency of South Korean smuggling through Washington state, saying human smuggling across the U.S.-Canadian border involves foreign nationals from many countries and is significant.

In North Central Washington, human smuggling most often has involved South Koreans.

"I've noticed a lot lately," said Frank Rogers, sheriff for sparsely populated Okanogan County. Just last month, nine South Koreans, ages 18 to 52, were detained by Border Patrol agents in Oroville.

Last year, out of an estimated 120 smugglers and illegal immigrants caught in Eastern Washington, 88 were South Korean nationals, said Jim McDevitt, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.

"It was a terrible year," he said. "They were women, for the most part, destined for the sex trade in Southern California, responding to ads saying they'd get them in the country and get them a job for $10,000."

Federal prosecutors in Seattle say a two-year investigation has led to charges against major players in smuggling South Koreans in Western Washington.

Authorities last week filed smuggling charges against Kong Sun Hernandez, 50, also known as "Madame Jin" and "Jinny," who allegedly acted as a facilitator. Tae Hyu Shin, 48, allegedly was a driver.

The pair face charges of smuggling five illegal immigrants in August 2003; transporting known illegal immigrants from the Canadian/U.S. border to Los Angeles; and a charge of transporting an individual from Washington state to Los Angeles to work as a prostitute.

Immigration agents rescued two women who were working as prostitutes and who were being held against their will, said Mike McCool, assistant special agent-in-charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle. Authorities declined to say where the women are now.

But the two defendants are suspected of being part of a much larger South Korean smuggling cell, one led largely by Young Pil Choi or "Ricky" Choi, a 29-year-old South Korean man from Los Angeles who pleaded guilty to smuggling charges last summer.

The Choi cell allegedly also involved Jung Soo Kim, 36, who worked as a driver and Ki Pil Hong, 39, who recruited/facilitated, prosecutors said.

Authorities won't say much about the case. But Hong's plea agreement hints at the scope of the Choi cell that operated through Mexico and Canada.

According to the plea agreement, Hong participated in smuggling more than 100 illegal immigrants through Oroville and Sumas, Whatcom County, between October 2002 and January 2003.

The immigrants were driven to Federal Way where they were picked up by Hong, who would take them to other U.S. locations.

Kim drove at least five times from Federal Way to Los Angeles, netting $1,500 per each "load" of four passengers, court documents said. According to his plea agreement, he transported more than 25 but not more than 99 South Koreans brought into this country illegally.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916