RICHMOND, Va. – A government sting that targeted buyers of black bear parts and wild ginseng — both prized in traditional Asian medicine — is being called discriminatory by Asian advocates, and some say the operation's setup gave the products an air of legitimacy.
The government says the Virginia sting was one investigation among many nationwide that focused on the black market for such ingredients. Prosecutors and law-enforcement agents say everyone charged in the case was warned that their purchases were illegal.
Asian-immigrant advocates, however, said the buyers were unfairly targeted because of their cultural beliefs.
"The focus of the sting operation — to target the buyers — already has an assumption that the buyers are going to be Korean-Americans," said Jun Koo, a program coordinator and director for the Korean American Coalition's (search) Washington chapter. He stressed he spoke only for himself, not the group.
The three-year sting based in a Shenandoah Valley sporting goods store resulted in charges against more than 100 people in January, and prosecutors acknowledge the majority of the defendants are Korean-Americans.
But they note the illicit trade in traditional medicine ingredients crosses ethnic, state and national lines.
"We're investigating international connections," said Rockingham County Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst. "One of our cases deals with money laundering."
Most were charged with buying bear parts or ginseng, and so far the defendants in state cases have received probation or suspended sentences with fines or restitution. None have been ordered to actually serve time in prison, Garst said.
About three-quarters of the state-level prosecutions are complete, she said. Federal prosecutors have so far charged eight people, with the first sentencing scheduled for June 14.
In the sting, agents for the state game department and the National Park Service (search) posed as sellers of illegal wild ginseng (search) and bear parts (search). Agents who did not speak Korean warned the buyers that the activity was illegal, using a mix of short, English sentences and pantomime, for example, of being led away in handcuffs.
The approach enraged Korean communities as knowledge of the sting spread. Some said the advertisements, which ran in Korean- and English-language publications, gave the offers the air of legitimacy.
Other critics derided the use of pantomime by the agents, calling it an unacceptable and degrading way to signal the situation's severity to a vulnerable population not fully integrated into the United States.
"You can't tell them just by pantomime that they may go to jail," said EunSook Lee, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, an immigrants' rights group. "That's not the way we work with our communities."
She added that the sting may have snared people who were desperate because conventional medicines weren't working.
"You're looking for something that would cure your family. It may be illegal. But you're looking for all measures," she said.
Complicating the issue is that buying some types of ginseng in Virginia is legal. Farm-grown varieties are acceptable; wild ginseng harvested from national parks is not.
Moon Chur Kim, member of a roughly 4,500-strong Korean Catholic parish in Fairfax, said he's lived in the area for decades and didn't know about the distinction. Koo said a public education campaign might have accomplished more.
"When you see some advertisement that they are selling ginseng, you would see it and say 'Hey, they're selling it,'" he said. "So we can buy it."
Garst said videotapes of the sales show the agents explained their illegality clearly enough. A court ruling in March that applied to numerous Rockingham County cases said no ethnic bias occurred.
Julia Dixon, a spokeswoman for the state game department, stressed that the sting had uncovered only the "tip of an iceberg" in the black market for illegally harvested traditional medicines. She also said that like farm-grown ginseng, legal alternatives exist for coveted bear parts such as gall bladders.
Traditional Chinese medicine considers black bear gall bladders to have the ability to treat spasms and skin lesions, among other conditions. Ginseng's properties are believed to include the ability to combat diseases in which the body is wasting away. Wild versions of both are seen as stronger, said Richmond acupuncturist Keith Bell.
"Our main point is not to dispute the medicinal purposes, but to say it is illegal in Virginia to sell black bear parts," Dixon said. "The reason for that is to protect those natural resources."
Lee said Korean communities can help environmental efforts, and authorities should take advantage of that, "rather than seeing them as the automatic enemy because culturally, they use these products."