In a bizarre turn in a spy case involving Korea, a convicted felon is being dispatched with America's blessing to North Korea to facilitate the export of a specialty liquor to New York from Pyongyang.
The case, which is unfolding in federal court in New York, involves a Manhattan man, Park Il Woo, who was arrested as part of a long-running federal investigation into South Korean spies in New York. Park has since pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about the extent of his contact with South Korean officials. In court documents, an FBI agent alleged that Park was being paid by South Korean officials and providing them with updates about his business trips to North Korea.
Despite the serious nature of the charges, Park, 59, has received substantial lenity ó something that is often in short supply in federal courthouses ó from both the judge and the prosecutors on the case.
The judge, William Pauley III of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, gave him 18 months' probation even though the crime he pleaded guilty to carried a sentence of up to five years in prison. After the guilty plea, prosecutors for the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office also agreed to lift a prohibition that had barred him from contacting South Korean officials for whom he was accused of spying. There appears to be little effort to deport Park, even though as a South Korean national convicted of a felony he is vulnerable to being expelled.
Most recently, a prosecutor from the office, Jennifer Rodgers, gave her permission to allow Park to travel to North Korea "on business" for two weeks beginning May 30, according to court papers filed by Park's attorney. Judge Pauley gave final approval for the trip without asking for any additional details, noting that his approval was "on consent of the Government." The trip is an unusual accommodation for a felon on probation.
In the past, Park has sought to serve as a "go-between" for America and North Korea, an offer he made to an FBI agent in 2005 while he was being questioned about his relations to South Korean officials. In a court affidavit, an FBI agent, William Smith, wrote that "Park stated that he did not understand why he was being asked questions about South Korean officials, and not about North Korean officials."
Park had told Special Agent Smith during the meeting, which took place at Grant's Tomb, that America ought to utilize his top access to North Korean officials, according to the court affidavit.
Court documents don't mention the nature of the business that Park intends to conduct while in North Korea. But it is likely connected to Park's long-standing efforts to import North Korean soju, a liquor made from corn and rice, into America. The plan appears to have received official approval from the North Korean government. The dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, held a ceremony for Park in April 2007 in support of Park's efforts to export soju to America, according to a report in an English-language paper in South Korea, the Korea Times.
Trade between North Korea and America has long been subject to American sanctions. The restrictions tightened in 2007 in response to North Korea's explosion of a nuclear device and ballistic missile test during the previous year. The new rules include a blanket ban on exporting alcohol to North Korea from America. There doesn't appear, however, to be a similar blanket ban preventing North Korean alcohol from being imported to America. Park told the Korea Times that he received approval from the American government in July 2006 to import soju into America.
According to Korean press reports, Park may have already succeeded in importing his first shipment of soju. In an interview last month with South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Park said the first shipment had arrived and was going on sale.
Park's import company, Korea PyongYang Trading U.S.A., is partnering with a New Jersey company, Tang's Liquor Wholesale, to distribute the drink across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, according to Korean press reports.
Bottles of Pyongyang Soju are expected to retail for just more than $10. The drink is made in a factory North Korea's capital and uses water pumped up from more than 500 feet underground, Yonhap reported.
Park told Yonhap that it was the first product North Korea actively sought to export to America. He said he would soon try to import North Korean beer as well, according to Yonhap.
Park's attorney, Deirdre von Dornum, did not return a call for comment. Park could not be reached for comment yesterday.