How Could This Be?
She had rushed to the phone to answer it, and now her hands trembled. She couldn't believe what she was hearing and frantically waved her arm for her husband to stand next to her.
She was confused when the voice on the other end explained that her son had been spotted in North Korea. Her wide eyes met her husband's. They both wondered the same thing: How could this be if their son had been missing for the past seven years?
David Sneddon, a Brigham Young University student, dreamed of a life filled with adventure. The American-born student loved learning about other cultures, so in 2004 he decided to travel East to China.
He’d already traveled to South Korea, so he was no stranger to Asia. But nothing could have prepared him for what befell him there.
A Bizarre Case
"His course work was done, so he said he was going to take a look around some touristy spots in southeast China before he came back," David’s father Roy explained to The Washington Post.
But what happened to David on his trip became such a puzzling mystery that even the highest government officials couldn’t unravel it.
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.” However, this friendly email would prove to be more like a portent of doom.
Biking In Paradise
On Thursday, Aug. 5, David headed to Yangshuo, but he wasn’t alone. Fellow Brigham Young University roommate George Bailey accompanied him for a few days of hiking and biking in a beautiful southern backpacker town along the Li River.
After the weekend, they parted ways. George was heading north to meet friends while David continued west to Yunnan.
On Monday morning, David woke up early to catch his bus. George groggily sat up and watched his friend go out the door, waving him out as he headed for the unknown.
"See you in Provo," David yelled as he dashed off. However, little did George know that was the last thing that David would ever say to him.
David’s family started to worry when his emails stopped but decided not to read too much into it. Maybe David was just busy having fun or couldn’t find a good internet connection in the remote mountains of China.
But they knew something was wrong when he didn’t show up in Seoul for a scheduled meet-up with his older brother Michael.
David had been hiking near the Burmese border on a beautiful and scenic trail called Leaping Tiger Gorge. But while he was on that trail, he vanished without a trace. It was as if he had disappeared from the face of the earth.
Chinese officials delivered the news to his shell-shocked parents, but something just wasn’t adding up.
The Chinese government told Kathleen and Roy Sneddon that David had fallen and perished. And, even worse, his body could not be recovered.
However, the Sneddons, for some strange reason, just couldn’t bring themselves to believe the officials’ story. Something wasn’t right. Little did they know, this was just the beginning of David’s unbelievable story.
"There's no evidence of that—zero," Kathleen said. If it were true, he'd have been the "only American missing in China since World War II whose body has not been found and whose whereabouts remain unknown."
Furthermore, David’s parents, who had 10 other children, knew that their son was an experienced hiker. Surely he wouldn’t have made such a careless mistake on an easy tourist trail?
Roy was determined to find out what had really happened to David, so he enlisted the help of two of his other children, Michael and James. Together, the boys traveled to Yunnan to try and find their missing brother.
A month after David had disappeared, they reached the Leaping Tiger Gorge, where they were met with a suspicious sight.
Putting On A Show
"It was ridiculous," Michael Sneddon said. When they reached the area, the hiking trail was crawling with policemen and their K-9 units, putting on a desperate show for the benefit of the two brothers.
"We just laughed and said thanks," Michael added. But, while David was nowhere to be found, the brothers did come across a valuable piece of the puzzle.
At the Leaping Tiger Gorge, a tour guide told the siblings that he’d known David personally. In fact, he’d walked with him along the entire trail! This story was then corroborated by a hostel owner at the end of the hike.
Apparently, David had stayed there. The clues were all pointing to the fact that David had walked the trail successfully, but where was he now?
The Sneddon family kept searching for something… anything… that would indicate that David was alive. They showed the locals pictures of him, and wherever they went, they found more clues that David had been there.
A cafe owner in Shangri-La said he’d met him and could even describe him, but that’s where the trail suddenly grew cold.
All the witnesses who told David’s parents about having seen their son, including the mentioned cafe owner and a Tibetan hiker, later said to the Chinese police that they couldn’t be sure about what they said.
In other words, they refused to appear as formal witnesses in front of Chinese law enforcement. But why could that be?
"We were, I suppose, naive," Roy told the media. "We had all these sightings we felt good about and went to Shangri-La ... we said, hey, we have all this information they haven't shared with the police.”
"It became evident they weren't going to do anything. The Korean cafe was about 100 meters from a police station, all they had to do was walk down the street, and they didn't do it for six months. The Chinese police are not incompetent." But that’s not all.
Kathleen, David’s mother, went even further. She said that those witnesses were “terrified” of what might happen to them if they spoke about the issue.
It became clear that David’s parents couldn’t count on the Chinese government to help them find their son. However, they weren’t willing to give up. But what could they do now?
Roy got the U.S. State Department involved. But, as far as the department was concerned, David had met his end in the Gorge.
They believed what the Chinese government told them. Roy and Kathleen’s hands were tied. It was only in 2011 -- seven years after David’s disappearance -- that they got a bizarre call.
The man on the end of the line was Richard Craft, an expert on North Korea and a formidable attorney. He told Kathleen that all the details about David’s disappearance, in his experience, pointed to North Korea.
He’d been studying the pattern of typical North Korean government kidnappings, and all the clues fit. Kathleen couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
It Wasn’t The First Time
The North Korean government has a history of kidnapping foreign nationals who venture into areas near its borders. The Japanese government is particularly concerned with this.
It has been happening since the 70s. Most of the people abducted by the North Korean government are yet to be found. Nothing is known about their whereabouts or even about whether they’re dead or alive.
Many Japanese citizens disappeared during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Government of Japan has so far identified 17 Japanese citizens as victims of kidnapping.
Five of them returned home in 2002, but nothing has been heard from any other abductee. Among the missing Japanese citizens is Megumi Takuya, a 13-year-old girl who disappeared in 1977 and was allegedly enslaved as a language teacher for a high-ranking North Korean official.
Apparently, most of these Japanese citizens were kidnapped and forced to teach North Korean officials about the Japanese language and culture or had their identities stolen so agents could masquerade as Japanese for espionage aimed mainly at South Korea.
In September 2002, North Korea admitted that it had abducted Japanese citizens and apologized while promising to prevent any further recurrences. However, there are reasons to believe that this promise wasn’t kept.
After admitting to the abduction of 13 Japanese nationals, North Korea allowed five to return home. It said eight others had passed away and denied that any other missing Japanese citizens had entered its territory.
The North Korean government promised to conduct an investigation but never announced the results.
According to Japan, North Korea hasn’t released the other victims of abduction out of fear about what they might divulge about the inner workings of the North Korean government.
To this day, there are four Japanese citizens that went missing during the 70s and 80s, the whereabouts or fate of which are unknown by anyone except North Korea. But that isn’t all.
Before David went missing, another American citizen disappeared and only reemerged years later: it was US Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins.
As it was proven, he had been kidnapped by North Korea and enslaved for 40 years, during which he had to teach English to North Korean spies. Jenkins was released just a few months after David vanished.
Jenkins recalls having been interrogated for 10 days and then transferred to a house with two other Americans where he was a hostage for decades.
"I suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead," he recounts. Was that what happened to David? Had he been kidnapped by the North Korean government?
"I just thought it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard," Kathleen recalls. But Melanie Kirkpatrick, a North Korea expert, believed otherwise, "If you know the history of North Korea's kidnappings of foreign nationals, it's not so crazy," she explained.
So, what had really happened to David? And where was he now? Could he have been abducted by the North Korean government?
It Made Sense
Melanie combed through the evidence, and everything made perfect sense. "We know that North Korean operatives were active in that region [Yunnan] around the same time David was there—with China's full permission," she said in a shocking statement.
But that wasn’t all there was to it. She had even more evidence to support her theory.
Melanie claimed that Japanese politician Keiji Furuya told her, "It is most probable that a U.S. national has been abducted to North Korea," back in 2013. But the most convincing evidence only surfaced in 2016.
An informant had come forward with new information, according to a South Korean organization that specialized in North Korean kidnappings.
Some sources inside Japan made some wild claims about David's whereabouts, namely that he had been kidnapped by North Korean officials and forced to teach Kim Jun-un, the infamous president of North Korea, English!
This information was even corroborated by Choi Sung-Yong, who was the head of the Abductees' Family Union in Seoul. Could these claims possibly be true?
A New Name
Sung-Yong then went on to provide more information, stating that David had changed his name and now went by Yoon Bong Soo and that he had also married a woman named Kim Eun Hye.
Could that be why nobody could track David down? Had David gone native in North Korea? This is what David’s mother said about this possibility after a conversation with Sung-Yong:
Part Of Their Plan
"It should be emphasized that that is part of the North Korean plan," Kathleen said. "If North Korea captures you, they're going to give you a wife; you have children, so you settle down and like it there, and you enjoy it and give them your best."
"We in our hearts think he's alive. We think he's probably teaching English. That's the most likely thing to use him for." There was one problem with this theory, though...
Not 100% Sure
Sung-Yong's information came with a caveat: he was only about 50% certain that the information was reliable.
"To us, the ideas are not new," Roy Sneddon said. "We have no proof that it's reliable, to be honest," said David’s mother. So it wasn’t like they could trust 100% what Sung-Yong said; despite all the coincidences and North Korea’s history, it was just a hypothesis until new evidence surfaced.
Just A Possibility
So David's parents couldn't afford to get their hopes up just to discover that none of the information about their son was true. It was just another possibility, but they had to wait for more evidence.
And besides the unreliability of the information, there was something else that complicated the issue further; it was something that involved the Japanese government.
Some officials in Washington believed that the Japanese government had an ulterior motive when it came to David, the missing U.S. citizen.
They believed that Seoul's Abductees' Family Union was only raising suspicions about kidnapped Americans and drawing attention to David's story so that the United States would intervene—and help abducted Japanese citizens in the process!
The U.S. State Department then said that all the evidence that had been uncovered in David's case was purely circumstantial and not conducive to any definite, certain conclusion.
The U.S. State Department said there was "no credible information to substantiate the idea that he has been abducted." So in the meantime, until there was more information, David's parents were left in the dark. What could they do now?
Now, the Sneddons were stuck with evidence that they felt was convincing enough for them to believe that David's disappearance did indeed have something to do with North Korea.
"My thought initially," Roy Sneddon said, "is they [North Koreans] mistook him for someone who was trying to move North Koreans out." Had that been the case, David’s fate would have probably been a grim one.
Never Giving Up
The Sneddons weren't about to give up the search for their missing son, though. They decided to take another step forward and try to get help from the House of Representatives.
In June 2017, Utah Senator Mike Lee and Representative Chris Stewart, who had been in contact with the Sneddons, urged the U.S. president to find some definitive answers.
But while the Sneddons waited and prayed for a break in the case, they took comfort from wherever they could.
"If my son has a part in helping North Koreans have a normal life in any way, I would just be thrilled," Kathleen said. But still, day and night, they were tortured by the same thought: would they ever hear from David again?
“I Want An Answer”
“I want an answer to what happened,” says Jenny Sneddon Reuel, David’s younger sister. “I lost a confidant and a best friend. That longing never goes away. There are moments when I will do something or hear a song that reminds me of Dave,” she said.
In 2019, State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams spoke about the issue after talking to Japanese, South Korean, and North Korean officers. This is what she said:
“While we did not receive an official response, the DPRK government publicly denied claims that Mr. Sneddon is living in Pyongyang,” she said.
“Thus far, we have not been able to verify any information suggesting that David Sneddon was abducted from China by North Korean officials or is alive in North Korea, but we will continue our efforts to search for any verifiable information.”
Do They Even Care?
“We understand that this might not be the top of the American priority. We recognize that the denuclearization negotiations are paramount,” said Bailey, the friend who accompanied David across China.
“But if Trump is going to go and meet with Kim Jong Un, there is a real question as to whether he is going to bring this up. No one knows if Trump has even heard about this case. I’m not sure if people even care,”
During his term in office, Donald Trump made no public mention of David’s disappearance. Current president Joe Biden hasn’t made any public comments either.
However, the Japanese prime minister has mentioned some recent talks with Biden where the president expressed his support on the issue of the abductions of Japanese citizens. Will the president speak on David’s vanishing sometime, though?
Waiting For News
In the meantime, David’s family is still waiting for any news on the case. “I still don’t have an answer to what happened to my brother,” his sister said.
“I know that there is nothing verifiable, but why was there no body or clothes or anything? Even if someone showed me a T-shirt, that would mean something.” In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.