A South Korea-bound Hawaiian Airlines passenger faces a maximum 20-year prison term after a drunken disaster in the skies, reports the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

Kyong Chol Kim, 48, pleaded guilty and told a federal judge that he doesn't remember being put into flex cuffs after lunging at a flight attendant.

He was charged on Monday with interfering with flight attendants and flight crew members. He faces a maximum 20-year prison term at sentencing in July.

Under the terms of his plea agreement, however, the government will recommend he be released at his sentencing date. Kim has been in custody since late February.

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He's not getting off lightly by any stretch; Hawaiian Airlines says it cost US$172,000 (NZ$264,800) to return the aircraft to Honolulu and then to resume the flight for the presumably vexed remaining passengers. Hawaiian and the court will reveal his fine at sentencing.

Kim arrived in Honolulu on February 25 2019. US customs officers refused him entry at the time for not having proper documentation. They took him to a Federal Detention Center until they could put him on Hawaiian Airlines Flight 459 back to South Korea two days later.

Witnesses saw a DFS worker hand Kim a package containing a bottle of whiskey in the duty-free zone prior to take-off. It is not clear who purchased the whiskey.

Kim said he was exhausted at the time and didn't realize how strong the whiskey was.

Attorney Sara Ayabe said Kim finished the bottle by the time the flight attendants began the flight's first service, bothered a 10-year-old sitting next to him and stepped on the boy's shoulder to lunge at a flight attendant.

Ayabe said Kim yelled in Korean that he was going to get the flight attendant and that "he's a criminal and could cause trouble."

Passengers and other flight attendants put flex cuffs on Kim and secured him at the back of the aircraft. The pilot decided to turn around the plane about three hours into the flight after receiving reports that Kim was continuing to yell and was fighting to get out of his restraints.

Judge Derrick K. Watson told Kim at the hearing that he also can expect to be barred from entering the United States and from applying for citizenship.

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Through a Korean interpreter, Kim asked how long he will be barred and whether that applies to tourist visits.

Watson told Kim that he will most likely be barred "in perpetuity for any purpose."

It is not the courts, but the executive branch of the United States government, that can refuse entry into the country.