Was An American College Student Kidnapped By North Korea?
In 2004, David Sneddon disappeared while hiking in China. But what seemed at first like a tragic accident may be something far more sinister: His family believes he is among the thousands of civilians who have been mysteriously abducted and imprisoned by North Korean agents.
David Sneddon flew to Beijing in April 2004 for summer Mandarin courses before his final year majoring in Asian languages and business. Languages were his thing: At 24, he was already fluent in Korean after spending two years as a Mormon missionary in Seoul. In the coming semester at Brigham Young University, he planned to learn one more: When classes finished, he tossed a Spanish primer in his bag so he could prep as he backpacked across China.
David wrote in an email to his mother that he was pumped to do "some hard-core traveling," but he had only three weeks to spare, so he planned out a brisk journey through southern China. "If you never hear from me again," he wrote, "look for my body in the western Yunnan Province of China or the Yellow Mountains of Anhui. Just kidding. No, I'm really so excited."
On Thursday, Aug. 5, along with BYU roommate George Bailey, David headed to Yangshuo, the southern backpacker town along the Li River whose misty limestone cliffs are so stunning they grace the back of China's 20-yuan note. After a weekend of hiking and biking, George was heading north to meet friends, while David continued west to Yunnan. The gateway to China's wild west, Yunnan is one of the country's most culturally and geographically diverse provinces, with southern areas that feel more like Southeast Asia than China, and Tibetan minorities and the foothills of the eastern Himalayas up north.
Monday morning, David woke early to catch his bus. Groggy and bed-headed, George sat up as his friend went out the door. "See you in Provo," was the last thing they said to each other.
David's family started to worry when his emails stopped, but perhaps he was just busy having fun or couldn't find a good internet connection in the remote mountains of China. They knew something was wrong when he didn't show up in Seoul for a scheduled meet-up with his older brother Michael.
Local Chinese authorities and State Department officials thought David may have fallen when hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, perhaps washed away in the branch of the Yangtze River that runs through it. He wouldn't be the first traveler to do so, and the Yangtze is in full flood in August. But the Sneddons didn't buy it — David was an Eagle Scout. Though he was raised in the flats of Nebraska, David had trekked hundreds of miles in the Rocky Mountains on family trips. He could handle himself outdoors.
David's father and two of his brothers decided to go to China and retrace his journey. By the end of their investigation, they were sure David made it through the gorge. Nine years later, the Sneddons have never wavered in believing that David is alive. And they now believe he is somewhere in North Korea, abducted by the Hermit Kingdom's secret agents from the town where he was last spotted in Yunnan, Shangri-La.
This sounds ridiculous, like the far-out invention of a family unwilling to face the reality of a loved one's disappearance. The Sneddons would agree — they didn't know what to think the first time the theory was presented to them either.
"I just flat out did not believe it," Michael Sneddon, the eldest of the family's 11 children, recalls. But then he started doing the research: North Korea's penchant for abducting innocent civilians goes all the way back to the Korean War. They've taken people with useful skills, people who could teach language and culture to secret agents, people whose identities could be co-opted by spies, people to be married off to other foreigners living in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and people who were just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And though no American citizen was known to have ever fallen into the latter category, the more the family learned about this bizarre history, the more it seemed plausible that David could be the first. Among the many victims — potentially tens of thousands have been interned in the country against their will since the 1950s — some of the most widely publicized cases were in no way connected to North Korea, and had no leads for two decades or more, twice as long as David has been gone.
As the numbers go, South Koreans comprise the majority of the victims. During the Korean War, when Communist forces occupied the south, an estimated 83,000 civilians disappeared. Many were white-collar professionals, people with skills seemingly useful to the regime; others were known anti-Communists. None of this group is known to have made it back south — the assumption is they were made to adjust to life in the north. The South Korean government also estimates 24,000 of their POWs were never repatriated after the war's end. Though since 1994, 80 have escaped North Korea, in a recent report, South Korea estimated that as of January 2012, 500 of its POWs are still alive in the north. Evidence suggests Americans were detained after the war too: Documents declassified in 1996 show the Pentagon knew right away after the war that 900 U.S. troops were alive and not released, but with nuclear war a real possibility, there wasn't much the Eisenhower administration did for these men.
After the war, North Korea apparently turned its attention to the sea. In the 1960s and with increasing frequency into the 1970s, South Korean fishing boats, and sometimes Japanese ones, were targeted. Some 3,700 fishermen were detained at one point or another, according to a South Korean government-funded research group. Most were released after several months, but South Korea believes about 450 fishermen are still held captive.
In the late 1970s, things took an aggressive turn when abductions moved onto foreign soil. In 1976, according to defectors, Kim Jong-il gave a secret order calling for the "localization of spy education" by using foreign nationals to improve North Korean spying capabilities. In essence, the Dear Leader declared open season on coastal-dwelling Japanese, and hapless people from as far away as Europe and Lebanon. Famously cinema-obsessed Kim Jong-il then set his sights on a South Korean pianist-and-actress couple who barely escaped a kidnapping attempt in 1977, and prolific South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok was abducted and imprisoned in the north where he made seven films for the regime. (The most memorable among them is Pulgasari, where a metal-munching monster defends a village from an evil feudal lord.)
In Japan alone: A mother and daughter went out for groceries and never came home. A 22-year-old divorced waitress dropped her 2-year-old daughter and infant son off at daycare and was never heard from again. A college student went to meet his girlfriend at the library. He told his grandmother he'd be home for dinner and didn't bother taking his wallet. The couple disappeared. Another couple, this one engaged, went for a bayside drive one evening. Their truck was found three days later at a coastal lookout with the keys hanging off the blinker.
And in November 1977, a 13-year-old girl began walking home from badminton practice. At the turnoff toward her house, about five minutes from the beach, Megumi Yokota may as well have vaporized — that's as far as the K-9s could trace her. No blood, no glass, no tire marks, and no clues. Every morning for years, her father walked the beach: If something washed up, he wanted to be the man to find it. Her mother found an art school pamphlet under Megumi's bed. She made a habit of flipping through the manga in bookstores, searching for drawings that looked like her daughter's — maybe an artist had taken her under his wing. For 20 years, the family never vacationed together because somebody had to be home in case the phone rang with news.
Every family was equally stumped. The only thing they had in common was sheer lack of evidence. As early as 1980, there was speculation in the news that unexplained disappearances could be linked to "foreign intelligence," but it was just that: speculation. And in Megumi's case, she seemed too young. What would spies want with a middle schooler?
An American backpacker would seem about equally useless; however, several things happened in the summer of 2004 — things that had nothing to do with David Sneddon — that now, to interested parties, seem potentially relevant.
The first was that the U.S. House passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which highlighted human rights violations, offered assistance to defectors, and created a special envoy position in the State Department to focus on these issues. North Korea responded with a press release advising the U.S. to "ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its extremely hostile moves to isolate the DPRK."
The second was that the South Korean government granted asylum to 460 North Koreans who'd been in Vietnam, a record number that riled the DPRK, which accused Seoul of "abduction and terrorism." A week later, North Korean media issued another release aimed at the U.S. and South Korea, stating, "The DPRK will certainly make non-governmental organizations in some countries pay for their flesh traffic worldwide." This was two weeks before David disappeared.
Shrill North Korean press releases aimed at the U.S. aren't especially rare, but then also, seven months earlier, a high-ranking North Korean defector was arrested on the Yunnan-Laos border. This, along with several other reports of activity in the region, makes it seem likely there were North Korean agents in the province where David was last seen.
The Sneddon family wasn't thinking about any of those things when they heard David was missing. Two of his brothers, Michael and James, spoke on the phone, half-seriously contemplating going to China to look for him. Michael then saw the hand of providence at work when his wife was able to pull up three last-minute round-trip tickets to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, that she could buy with frequent-flier miles.
"I was just stunned," Michael says. Next he called his father. "I don't think it was more than half an hour, a decision was made to leave that week."
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Asia mobilized to help plan their trip. Not knowing what to expect on the trail, the Sneddons packed the full spread — stove, tent, water filters. Michael did not want a state-sponsored interpreter. "You have an embedded informant, so to speak," he said. "Of course you're going to be followed anyways, but we still didn't want our thought processes shared." Members connected the Sneddons to an interpreter, a Chinese Mormon, who was living in Kunming.
In Yunnan, the State Department helped facilitate meetings with local police who assured the Sneddons they were doing everything they could. Michael sensed an emphasis on presentation. Officers made sure the Sneddons saw their 4x4 and bloodhound, never mind David was already four weeks' gone and it had been raining.
"This is a dog-without-the-pony show — showing us how they tried to find him, and I'm thinking, This is ridiculous." Michael recalled.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge trail is fairly developed. The narrow 10-mile path wends past terraced-farm villages and rocky overlooks, with views of jagged snow-capped peaks and the brown river deep below. There are snack hawkers and guesthouses along the way, so the Sneddons left most their gear and traveled light.
They hoped to find someone who'd remember a handsome young man with braces and a widow's peak, who spoke Chinese well and carried only a small bag. They hadn't been on the trail more than two hours when they ran into a trail guide who said a month earlier he'd been escorting a group of Chinese hikers when a young Westerner caught up to them.
The Sneddons say he told them this young man had been studying Chinese in Beijing and previously in the U.S., and that he hiked with the group the rest of the way until they reached Tina's Guesthouse at the end of the trail, where they all stayed the night. When they were done speaking with the guide, all three were satisfied he'd given an accurate description of David.
When the Sneddons reached Tina's, they saw a police satchel and jacket laid out, so they knew cops were around. One of the workers said the owner was out shopping for food. "It didn't occur to me until months later that the policeman was there to prevent her from talking to us," Michael says. Though they weren't able to confirm his stay at Tina's, the Sneddons also found a few workers at a nearby guesthouse who described David's widow's peak. "Knowing him, he saw a couple cute Asian girls and, you know, decided to talk to them," Michael says.
The family was elated: They believed David made it out of the gorge. He'd mentioned in his final email that after the gorge he would head "really, really close to Tibet," so after their hike they continued north to Shangri-La. The northern town is home to a sprawling Tibetan-style monastery. (It used to be called Zhongdian, but renamed itself after the fictional utopia in order to reel in tourists.)
Lacking any leads, the Sneddons prayed for guidance as to where to start their search. They picked an area and spent all day knocking on doors with no results. It was deeply discouraging, but they started out again the next day and came upon the Korean restaurant Yak Bar.
Owner Zhang Xiaofen told the Sneddons someone matching David's description had stopped in two or three times over two days. Each time they'd spoken in Korean to one another, she described how he was careful with what he spent on food and how he'd joked with her. (David, by all accounts, had no trouble chatting with women.) "When we pulled out those photographs and showed her, her face just lit up, like wow. This is a girl who not only recognized him, but enjoyed talking to him," Michael says. Ms. Zhang told them that on his final visit, he said good-bye in a way she understood to mean he was leaving the city.
Near the restaurant, they also found an English-speaking Tibetan guide who said a man matching David's description talked to him several times; the conversations were in Chinese, about possible guided hikes in the area.
In the end, they found 12 people they thought had encountered David, but the most important among them was the owner of Yak Bar. Ms. Zhang's confident description, plus the fact they'd used Korean to communicate, made the Sneddons sure David had been there.
Using Zhang's sightings and David's plane reservations, they built a timeline. After David's lunch on the second day in Shangri-La, it seemed he had only a few hours to spare before he needed to board a bus in order to make his domestic flight from Kunming, which he missed.
Though they hadn't found him, the Sneddons weren't disheartened. Locals repeatedly told them the prefecture was a low-crime area, and there was no body, so they felt safe ruling out foul play. Perhaps there was a mix-up and he'd been arrested and now someone was too embarrassed to admit it, the Sneddons thought. Michael felt the whole Chinese search effort was less than sincere. He says people at the American embassy implied local police weren't competent: "I think that's garbage. They knew exactly what they were doing."
The Sneddons returned home and put together a report on their findings, trusting the State Department would take it from there.
In November, provincial officials told the U.S. consulate they'd checked all the family's leads and the results were unclear. Months of diplomatic back-and-forth ensued until finally, the following June, 10 months after the fact, American consular representatives and Chinese officials went out for a follow-up.
Their conclusions weren't nearly as assured as the Sneddons'. Of the eight sightings followed up on, most people weren't certain whom they saw or said different things than the family had reported the previous fall. According to the investigation summary, the Tibetan guide in Shangri-La said he remembered the Sneddons and that he'd talked to someone who looked like David and spoke Chinese well, but he couldn't be certain it was him. He said the man didn't want to pay for a guided trip and asked about places he could visit alone. Ms. Zhang at Yak Bar said she also couldn't be certain she'd seen David Sneddon; she told investigators she had exchanged "Korean greetings" with a man who came in twice with an Asian woman but that when he left the second time he said he'd come back — a contradiction of what the Sneddons understood her to say.
The Sneddons view this as a watered-down version of their own work, an effort bent on discrediting instead of truth-seeking. Here is where it's clear the family should have hired an investigator, though no one plans for this kind of situation. The family's report shows they made calculated efforts not to lead witnesses and to make sure people identified multiple characteristics of David, but it's unclear how much their natural desire to find him colored those findings. And a professional would have been more methodical with the details: The Sneddons, for example, weren't able to ascertain where David slept, and Chinese authorities maintain there is no record of him at any area guesthouses (foreigners always have to register their passport numbers at hotels).
Does that indicate a cover-up? Not necessarily. David could've taken a night bus from Kunming to Lijiang, the town where he last emailed from, and that would explain the lack of hotel record. In a family email discussing the joint follow-up investigation, James Sneddon wrote, "I wasn't totally convinced they saw David anyway" of a group of witnesses that officials re-interviewed, and yet in the Sneddon's report this same group gets a 7/10 "rating of authenticity."
The joint U.S. consul–provincial authority investigation also mentioned there'd been a landslide on a portion of the lower trail that would have made passage treacherous. There was a rumor in the gorge area that a local youth employed by a guesthouse found David's passport in a waterfall. The kid told investigators he knew nothing, that perhaps it was a rumor started by a rival guesthouse.
"I regret that we did not interview the owner of Tina's," Michael said. "I just didn't realize that the Chinese government and even our own government would kind of just turn the other way and say, 'Oh, we don't really buy into this.'"
My efforts to explain the discrepancies in the two investigations were complicated by the fact that Michael Sneddon wanted to retract his interview in order to give another publication exclusivity. He encouraged me to use only public sources, insinuated he never agreed to be interviewed, and promised to provide more details if I held the story. He is adamant that Ms. Zhang was a stronger witness than investigators said she was, but had trouble specifying how. There is misinformation about the misinformation.
The joint investigation summary stopped short of dismissing the Sneddons' findings altogether. Results were inconclusive. And that's where they stood for a long, long time.
But strange circumstances and time gaps are par for the course when uncovering North Korean machinations. For the families of Japanese abductees, the first crack in the curtain of mystery came from the least likely of places: a major terrorist event instigated halfway across the world.
In November 1987, two North Korean agents posing as a Japanese father and daughter boarded a Korean Airlines flight in Baghdad bound for Seoul. They left liquid explosive in a liquor bottle and a detonator disguised in a radio on board and got off when the plane stopped in Abu Dhabi. Hours later, Flight 858 blew up over the Andaman Sea, killing 115 people. The agents were arrested two days later in Bahrain. The man bit into a cyanide capsule hidden in a cigarette and killed himself. The woman tried to do likewise, but failed. She was extradited to Seoul.
It didn't take 25-year-old Kim Hyon Hui long to change her mind about what she'd done when she saw South Korea was a much different country than she'd been taught. She was sentenced to death but received a presidential pardon; the South Korean government was willing to attribute her crimes to brainwashing. Not to mention, she had valuable information. Kim attested that her orders had come from the very top, either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il. She also described a Japanese woman she lived with for a year and a half who taught her how to speak the language and educated her on Japanese fashion and pop culture — a woman who often cried about the two small children she was torn from.
In 1991, Japanese police identified spy-terrorist Kim's Japanese teacher as Yaeko Taguchi, the waitress with two children. At a meeting in Beijing, Japanese diplomats asked North Koreans to look into it. The North Koreans stormed out.
Even with Kim's admission, there still wasn't enough evidence for the Japanese abductee issue to gain public traction. It took six more years before it came to real prominence. A North Korean spy who had defected told South Korean intelligence he knew of a girl who'd been abducted because she'd happened on North Korean agents getting ready to leave via the beach. The spy didn't know where she was taken from, but he knew she'd been on her way home from badminton practice. Once this came out in the media, it quickly became clear the girl had to be Megumi Yokota, the 13-year-old who disappeared two decades earlier.
Shortly thereafter the abductees' families formed an association. Japanese conservatives who advocated a hard line against the DPRK rallied behind them, but doubts persisted in the wider public.
In Japan, the political tide changed in 2002, when for the first time, evidence surfaced that was absolutely irrefutable. In a summit with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Kim Jong-il quite surprisingly admitted to and apologized for 13 abductions of Japanese. This was when North Korea was making efforts to get off the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, but if Kim thought this would thaw relationships with Japan, it had the opposite effect.
The abduction issue mainstreamed in Japan. There is now a government department devoted to handling it, and the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has put it to the forefront in his foreign policy. Japan has what no other country had then or has gained since: a confession from the top, and even that seemed like less than the whole truth. Five abductees were allowed to return; the other eight were said to have succumbed to car crashes, accidental gas poisoning, suicide, and illness — two were reported to have died of heart attacks when they were 24 and 27. Conveniently, six of the buried bodies were said to have washed away in a flood, and the DPRK presented death certificates to investigators that later proved bogus. DNA testing in Japan of alleged abductee ashes were inconclusive. While many suspect the actual number of cases to be much higher, Japan officially recognizes 17 cases now and has taken an "alive until proven dead" stance where the purportedly deceased victims are concerned.
In September 2005, Roy and Kathleen Sneddon and seven of their children went to Yunnan. They hadn't hit upon the North Korea theory yet but suspected David might be in the hands of Chinese authorities, so they went to make an emotional plea. Michael memorized a statement in Chinese. He'd had a vision of David working in an agricultural setting and he told a roomful of local officials as much.
"Basically I said, 'Father of our spirits has shown me David working in the field. Frankly, it was a spiritual experience,'" he says. "In a roundabout way, I accused them of having David."
At first there was some confusion over the fact Michael was talking about God, but when everyone realized his meaning, there was minor uproar. The gathered officials assured him that was not the case, that David had not been arrested. The U.S. has a treaty with China that says if an American is arrested, the consulate is to be notified promptly. State Department officials told the Sneddons that China has honored the policy and that other Western embassies reported good compliance.
The following April, Roy and Michael returned to Yunnan once more. This time they met with a high-ranking public security official in Shangri-La. It was an emotional sit-down; the official's translator was in tears. In what struck Michael as a moment of bald sincerity, the official told them David was neither in a local prison nor had the Public Security Bureau taken him elsewhere.
"He did not at all imply David disappeared in the gorge. We were way past that," Michael says. "The words were, 'We didn't transport him out.' There wasn't too much he could say after that."
After the five Japanese abductees returned home in 2002, and after some prolonged diplomatic wrangling, their families were able to follow. This included Charles Jenkins, the American husband of abductee Hitomi Soga. Jenkins was one of four U.S. soldiers who separately defected across the Demilitarized Zone when stationed in South Korea — a knuckleheaded mistake each came to quickly regret.
Jenkins brought word that abductions were more than just a Japanese problem, the scope was global. While evidence of agents scooping people up and dragging them into boats is contained to east Asia, Jenkins attested that non-Asians were tricked into coming to the DPRK all the way from Europe and the Middle East.
He spoke to journalists of how his North Korean minders came to the four Americans in the late '70s and said they had four Lebanese women for them. Jenkins wasn't interested, but the other three went to Pyongyang and he didn't see them for 18 months. When they returned, they told him the women said an employment broker in Beirut offered them secretarial jobs in Japan. The four boarded a plane that took them to Pyongyang instead.
One of the women had family in government back in Lebanon, and all four were eventually allowed to leave. One returned because she was pregnant by one of the Americans.
Back in Lebanon, two of the women said that while in North Korea, their passports were confiscated and they were taken to a spy school that gave lessons in martial arts and Kim Il-sung's philosophy. There were 28 other women at the school, including three Italians, three from France, two from Holland, and other Middle Easterners and Western Europeans, they said, and none were free to leave. The report was published in a Lebanese newspaper. The three women who now live outside have declined further interviews, reportedly for fear of reprisal.
James Dresnok, the only one of the four American defectors still alive in North Korea, married a Romanian named Doina Bumbea. Jenkins said Doina was going to art school in Italy when she met an Italian who purported to be an art dealer and asked if she wanted to go on tour to Hong Kong. She lacked a passport, so he procured a North Korean one. When the plane landed in Pyongyang, well, they couldn't let her move on with those false papers.
Over his 39 years in North Korea, Jenkins said he spotted many foreigners he suspected of having been abducted or detained against their will. He didn't have proof, because it wasn't something people felt safe discussing openly. One of the couples that was returned to Japan, whose children later followed, said not only had they not told their kids they'd been abducted, they hadn't even told them they were Japanese.
In his memoir, Jenkins said especially in the 1980s he saw a lot of foreigners about, but he encountered far fewer in the 1990s; he suspected the change had to do with the airplane bombing and Kim the spy's subsequent confession. Maybe someone thought it was time to be more discreet.
The late '70s were the salad days of North Korea's international kidnappers. In recent years, there has been increased focus on tamping down on defectors fleeing through China. Those with the wherewithal to make it down to Southeast Asia, Thailand being the preferred locus, can usually continue on to South Korea. China repatriates defectors when they're caught. And North Korea has abducted activists — most often South Korean Christian evangelists working (illegally) in China to aid defectors.
In 2000, Pastor Kim Dong-shik, a U.S. green-card holder from South Korea, was grabbed outside a restaurant in northern China, driven to the border, and dragged across the Yalu River. Five years later, a South Korean court convicted an ethnically Korean Chinese national of helping agents from North Korea kidnap the pastor. Kim's family believes he died in 2005 in a prison camp.
That year, several congressmen, including then-Sen. Obama, signed a letter to North Korea's U.N. ambassador that said they wouldn't approve North Korea's removal from the list of states that sponsor terrorism until Pastor Kim was accounted for. Obama changed his mind in 2008 as the Bush administration was finalizing a deal to get North Korea off the terror-sponsoring list in exchange for curbing its nuclear program. The State Department deemphasized abductions in its terrorism reports. Similar to the early cases in Japan, Pastor Kim's fate was most heralded by right-wing media and Christian activists.
But would North Korea snatch a Korean-speaking American who, coincidentally, used to be a missionary and was perhaps mistaken for helping defectors or maybe just ran into someone he helped in passing? It's a tenuous connection, but it's easy to see where a family lacking other answers would find it significant.
Years passed. The Sneddons say that some people speculated David fell in love and ran off. But his last bank account withdrawal was for $300, more than a week before he disappeared. He'd taken out a loan for the coming semester and had been unceremoniously studying for the LSAT all summer. Plus, there were no troubles at home, and China confirmed his passport was never used to leave the country.
In April 2011, Michael received a call from Chuck Downs with the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Downs is a careful-speaking former deputy director at the Pentagon's Asia office whose experience working with North Korean defectors stretches back to 1999.
A volunteer had come into the NGO's office one day — a Mormon who'd done his mission in Seoul after David — who said he'd always wondered if North Korea might have been involved. "He told me the story and I thought there was at least a remote possibility that it should be looked into," Downs says. He set the guy to work mapping out the evidence.
There were the political events of summer 2004, and then the fact David had last been seen in a restaurant. Using restaurants as listening posts is standard spy tradecraft. At least two Japanese men had been abducted from restaurants in the '70s and '80s, and Megumi Yao, a Communist extremist who spent seven years in North Korea, was sent back to Japan to open a café near a U.S. military base for espionage purposes. Then the fact that there was absolutely no trace of David mirrored the pattern of abductions in Japan. At that point, it was totally circumstantial, but Downs decided to call the Sneddons. "They were not immediately impressed," Downs says.
But the Sneddons started reading about North Korean abductions and quickly found significance in the similarities to David's disappearance. David's parents went to Japan along with his brother James, who speaks Japanese because he'd done his Mormon mission in Sendai. He spoke at a rally organized by the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN).
In May 2012, a Japanese government delegation and representatives of NARKN came to Washington with a potentially explosive report: A source within China's Ministry of State Security relayed that an American man in his early twenties was arrested in Yunnan in August 2004 for helping an illegal alien. He was said to be released by the Chinese in September, but then picked up by five North Korean state security officers. NARKN members and the Sneddons were convinced: It had to be David.
Ambassador Robert King, who now holds the special envoy on North Korean human rights position, spoke about the Japanese abductions at an event in Washington. Immediately after, Michael asked a State Department official what he thought of this new development. Michael says he was told privately that they couldn't assign credibility to it. Japanese government officials told the Sneddons the U.S. government didn't seem interested in working with them on the case. State Department officials declined to comment on David's case for this story and cited the Privacy Act.
The Privacy Act has been a major stumbling block for the Sneddons as well. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed the State Department has 14 documents related to David Sneddon. Only one was released: a briefing where a Chinese official said there was no updated information on David. The other 13 were withheld; six contained classified information, and others were withheld because the release of personal information is prohibited without an individual's written consent. Exceptions can be made for health and safety concerns, but since the Sneddons don't have verifiable information of David's whereabouts, the State Department won't budge. Frustrating though it is, it's possible none of those documents contain anything illuminating.
And not all the circumstantial evidence the Sneddons collected stands up to scrutiny. Before David left Beijing, for example, a friend with whom he'd served part of his mission in Seoul came to visit. Justin Richmond was doing research on the linguistic habits of ethnically Korean Chinese nationals at a university in northeastern China, not far from the North Korean border. When nothing is concrete — and hardly anything is when it comes to the DPRK — many things can take on dubious significance: In various media and activist sites, it was reported Richmond was asked to leave China under mysterious circumstances — the conjecture being Richmond was mixed up in something illicit and, since he stayed with David for several days, David was targeted by association (a theory the family had had long before they'd heard of North Korean abductions). But Richmond says that isn't true: All his research was done on campus with college students, and he wasn't asked to leave the country, he was asked to leave his dorm to make room for incoming students.
The first he heard about this theory was on a phone call from a mutual friend from the mission in Seoul. Before David left Beijing, for example, a friend with whom he'd served part of his mission in Seoul came to visit: "'Dude, did you know that David Sneddon never came back from China?' I'm like, 'No, I had no idea.'"
The friend said he'd just seen it on the news, and seen Richmond mentioned in connection. Shortly thereafter Richmond spoke to Kathleen Sneddon on the phone. "One of the toughest conversations I ever had," Richmond says, sighing. "His family just... There was no real talking to them about this."
To this day, Michael Sneddon is mistrusting; Richmond is still a functioning cog in the conspiracy clockwork. Michael is quick to note how close Yanji, where Richmond studied, is to the North Korean border and still believes there was something fishy about his departure from China. (It's true Richmond applied to go on a group tour of North Korea but was denied. However, given the U.S. and North Korea's clashes that summer, it's not unusual that an American was denied.) It's difficult to see any way Richmond could ever clear his name with the Sneddons, because so long as he doesn't admit anything, he's just covering his tracks. "He's not going to tell that to you or me," Michael says. "Sorry, that's just the way it is."
There's a logical fallacy known as the Texas sharpshooter: Shooting inside a designated target is different than drawing a target around a bullet cluster after the fact. In other words, you can't just draw focus on the data that's convenient — like the fact there probably were North Korean agents in Yunnan in 2004 — while ignoring the data that's not, like that nothing ties David to North Korean defectors, or that Yunnan is slightly bigger than Montana and North Koreans had no known business up north in a tourist trap, or that nothing suggests Richmond is lying.
After college, Richmond went into the Army for five years. Now he works as a foreign aid specialist for Palantir, a tech company that provides analytical software to government entities. He feels for the Sneddons, but he doesn't buy the abduction theory and thinks NARKN's credibility is tempered by its political motivations.
"They're so driven by an agenda that I think they really shoot from the hip," Richmond said. "I think we have to be comfortable with 'I don't know,' and we probably never will know. And I mean I truly, I feel horrible for his family."
It's unfortunate the Sneddons and Richmond weren't able to communicate better: When I interviewed Richmond, he said David had mentioned in passing that a friend was flying in from South Korea to hike with him. Richmond never told this to the Sneddons because he didn't think it was relevant to David's disappearance.
The last time David was supposedly seen at Yak Bar, he was in the company of a tall Asian woman who appeared to speak neither Chinese nor Korean. Ms. Zhang said the two paid for their food separately and that the relationship looked casual.
The Sneddons think she was a lure since she was apparently seen with him so close to when he disappeared. "I would call it the honeydew," Michael says. "Leads the guy to the trap. Typical intelligence maneuver."
But she could've been David's hiking buddy, or just another backpacker, or someone he was quietly dating. Whoever she was — if they were even seen together — no one tracked her down.
Whatever might have happened to David in Shangri-La, a NARKN spokesman said that their source who reported an American's arrest has provided credible information in the past. Still, China not telling the U.S. about an American's arrest would be an unprecedented offense. And NARKN's release implies Chinese authorities may have been complicit with North Koreans. Why would they abet a crime with drastic international implications were it discovered?
I've thought about David every day for months and I still don't know what happened to him. He's in North Korea, or he isn't. An average family experienced extraordinary tragedy and put together a wobbly theory that just might be proven right. That's an exasperating, unholy mess of a conclusion. But the frustration of trying to understand the Sneddon story pales compared what the family has endured for nearly a decade, trying to figure out what happened to their charming, sharp-witted, beloved brother and son.
If David is in North Korea, before it is proven, history tells us word will probably trickle out through hearsay and rumors, likely courtesy of people with suspect credibility. After all, Japan's major break came courtesy of a mass murderer.
It's also probably true that the U.S. government would act only on the surest evidence — and even then, maybe not at all. If nothing could be done for hundreds of Korean War POWs, what could be done for one man?
Take the example of Kenneth Bae, who has been detained in the DPRK for 10 months now. Bae's case is different from the abductees in that he traveled to North Korea as a tour leader and was apparently engaged in Christian activism. In the past, US politicians acting in a non-official capacity have sometimes been able to secure the release of people who took themselves to North Korea but then weren't allowed to leave. Thus far, government efforts to secure Bae's release have proved fruitless; the DPRK revoked an invitation to Ambassador King to come talk about Bae in response to U.S. military war games in South Korea. Some hoped Dennis Rodman's unlikely ambassadorship would land results. It didn't. (Rodman's usefulness extended to confirming that Kim Jong-un's wife had a baby girl called "Ju-ae.")
After years of scant answers, the Sneddons are resilient, something they credit to their faith. David's parents have devoted much of their retirement to helping others. It would be understandable if they hated the country that swallowed their son, but Roy and Kathleen Sneddon spent nearly two years in China, not to find David, but to teach English to graduate students. Now both 77, they left Utah this month to begin a one-year mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
You have to hope they'll one day find resolution, but it's unclear a life in North Korea is worth hoping for. Those who've made it out attest to an initial period of grueling indoctrination — 10- or 11-hour days studying Juche theory, Kim Il-sung's Korean-Communist special blend, and memorizing long tracts of propaganda ("How will the people accomplish party goals for hydroelectric power?").
Surveillance is a constant. Foreigners are assigned minders who oversee their weekly self-criticism sessions and nose into the most intimate details of daily life. Gas and electricity are in short supply. Food rations can come spoiled or bug-laden or not at all. A South Korean POW told of three decades spent in a cell using an oil drum that had been cut in half as a toilet; an abducted fisherman who spent 35 years in the north told Congress he ate tree bark to survive. He said if he could take all the memories of that time and sink them to the bottom of the fishing grounds from whence he was stolen, he'd be a happier man.
The United Nations convened a yearlong panel to investigate North Korean human rights violations. In August, the commission traveled to Japan to learn about abductions. Findings will be presented to the General Assembly in New York next month.
Though fewer defectors are escaping now, abductee sightings are still dribbling out. In 2011, reports surfaced that Yaeko Taguchi, the waitress who taught the terrorist, was seen in Pyongyang. Last summer, Japanese and Korean media said Kyoko Matsumoto, a woman who vanished on her way to a knitting class, may also be living in the North Korean capital.
Last year, Chuck Downs attended a non-official meeting with young North Korean diplomats in Berlin. They all spoke English incredibly well. One in particular, Downs says, had an impeccable accent.
"He spoke with a Midwestern, American, normal accent, like you'd hear a newscaster in America speak with," Downs said. When Downs asked him who his favorite North Korean leader was, the guy retorted, "Let's not go there."
"You shouldn't make too much of it. I'm certainly not," Downs says. After all, there are British and Canadian English teachers in North Korea, and occasionally church-affiliated Americans go over. But still, it's youthful jargon, too young to have been learned from someone old enough to have fought in the Korean War. The country's elites lives are shrouded in secrecy, including their educations.
Today, David has 25 nieces and nephews and two more are on the way. He's only met 12 of them. If he's out there, there's plenty to come back to. And while there may not be answers, maybe there's comfort in knowing David's last days with his friend were good ones. You can hear it in George Bailey's voice when he recounts their weekend in Yangshuo, taking mountain bikes up and down trails, cycling through farmland, hiring a bamboo raft to float down the Li River.
"It was like having an opportunity to catch Dave at his best," Bailey says. "He was in a good mood, he was happy."