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Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
In the summer of 2004, an American student named David Sneddon went hiking in China’s Yunnan Province. He stopped to spend the night in the village of Shangri-La before continuing on. The next day, he left his guesthouse, had lunch at a Korean restaurant, and disappeared.
What happened? As Keiji Furuya, Japanese Minister of State for the Abduction Issue, recently told Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal: “It is most probable that a U.S. national has been abducted to North Korea.”
Or, is it? North Korea has admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens over the years, in a number of bizarre incidents. Romanian, Lebanese, and Thai citizens have been abducted by North Korea, in equally strange cases. While it is certainly possible that David Sneddon is right now rotting in a North Korean prison, it is, in fact, far from certain.
A THEORY EMERGES
David Sneddon grew up in a large Mormon family, the tenth of eleven children. A Chinese major at Brigham Young University and already a fluent Korean speaker, David decided to attend summer school in Beijing to improve his Mandarin. After classes finished, he would spend part of August exploring southern China.
David’s daily emails to his family had stopped coming in, but he was a young man on the road. He was scheduled to meet one of his brothers in Seoul before returning home to the U.S.; once he arrived, their worries would be put to rest. However, when David didn’t show up, the Sneddons knew that something was very seriously awry. Chinese authorities investigated, and concluded that David had fallen into a ravine and died while hiking the Leaping Tiger Gorge. After members of the Sneddon family flew to China and hiked the same route with ease, they were convinced David hadn’t died that way. U.S. consular officials looked everywhere, to no avail: hospitals, jails, mental institutions. David Sneddon had vanished.
Years passed without a word, until eventually, as Kathleen Sneddon told NK News from her home in Providence, Utah, “someone connected the dots.”
It was April 2011, when the Sneddons’ phone rang “out of the blue.” Chuck Downs, the then-Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), was on the line. “I’m absolutely convinced that David has been kidnapped by North Koreans,” he said.
Two months later, Downs testified before Congress that “circumstantial evidence…suggests that the mysterious disappearance of David Sneddon was actually a North Korean abduction.”
“There are a number of other circumstances that support the same conclusion,” he said.
Though Downs did not respond to requests for comment, Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK’s current Executive Director, did. He told NK News that while “elements may be seen as merely circumstantial,” many of them “point to the likelihood of an abduction by agents of the North Korean regime.”
Many abductees were linguists, and he spoke English with a Midwestern accent and also spoke Korean and Chinese; many abductions have happened at or around Korean restaurants, and David Sneddon had his last known meal at a Korean restaurant; there was a quite significant North Korean presence in the area, possibly due to the proximity to the Burmese border (partly due to transfers of military technology to Burma, partly due to the presence of NK refugees in the area); the United States had just passed the North Korea Human Rights Act; a group of nearly 460 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea via Vietnam; and North Korea threatened retaliation against NGOs and individuals rescuing North Korean refugees.
The refugee theory was introduced in May of 2012, when a delegation from the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) arrived in Washington, D.C. to convince “the U.S. authorities to resume investigations and engage in international efforts on the abduction issue.” And why would Japanese abductees concern the United States? They wouldn’t. But they’d care about an American one.
According to HRNK’s Scarlatoiu, the Japanese group had located a witness who said “David was arrested by agents of the Ministry of State Security of the People’s Republic of China on charges of helping illegal residents,” after which he had been “rendered to five North Korean secret agents searching for refugees in Kunming, Yunnan.”
The North Korean response came quickly, via state-run media:
“In the past the Japanese reactionaries kicked up much fuss after deliberately linking cases of missing persons that took place inside Japan with the DPRK only to be censured and ridiculed by the world people when they turned out to be sheer fabrications.
“Such behavior of the Japanese reactionaries reminds one of the last-ditch efforts of psychopath.”
BUT, WHY DAVID SNEDDON?
Was David Sneddon working to help North Koreans escape into China? By all accounts he was not. His parents however, believe that an acquaintance of David’s could have been partially to blame.
“A former Seoul missionary companion also stayed with David in Beijing for 3-5 days awaiting a return flight to the USA,” reads a post on HelpFindDavid.com. “The former companion, then a student at Duke University, was studying the problems of refugees exiting from North Korea into northern China. He was asked to leave PRC after requesting a visa to go into DPRK. Did these associations make David suspect? David’s family think that they did. Their thesis is that these associations suggested to the PRC and DPRK that David was participating in the underground railroad moving North Korean refugees across China.”
NK News spoke with the “former companion,” a U.S. Army veteran, 2012 Truman Fellow, and soon-to-be-father named Justin Richmond, who has never before had a chance to tell his side of the story.
Justin, who had had received a small grant from Duke’s Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, said he was not studying North Korean refugees, but was actually researching linguistic trends among diasporic Koreans.
“North Korean refugees weren’t even part of my research,” Justin said. “I was studying linguistics, what the children of Korean immigrants, second-generation Chinese-Koreans, spoke at home; with friends; if they looked for a mate who felt the same way. It would be like going to El Paso, Texas to find out what language the American-born children of Mexican immigrants speak at home, etc. And I certainly wasn’t involved with the underground railroad, I was a college student.”
Nor was Justin “asked to leave” China. He left the University “because my time was up and the next session was starting,” he said. “They needed the dorm space.” And, while he did apply through a local travel agency to join a group tour in North Korea (and was turned down, as sometimes happens to American travelers requesting DPRK tourist visas, depending on the political climate at the time), one thing had nothing to do with the other.
“I was there on a student visa, which was tied to my academic status,” Justin said. “When my studies were finished, I went home.”
THE “ASIAN WOMAN”
One theory that emerged about David’s disappearance had him going off the grid to escape his life, possibly with someone he met in Asia.
On HelpFindDavid.com, Roy and Kathleen Sneddon recall a conversation with the owner of the cafe where David ate lunch right before he went missing. She said she remembered seeing David at a table with an “Asian woman, taller, attractive.”
“[O]ur thought is that she probably was a lure, I suppose,” Roy said on Jack & John in the Morning, a local Midwest radio show.
“One nice term is a ‘honeypot,’ trying to get him,” said Kathleen.
But why would the North Korean government sent out a decoy to seduce and abduct David Sneddon? Could it simply have been a girlfriend? The Sneddons say no.
“As a life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ, David was taught and lives by a strict code of behavior: do not drink alcohol, take drugs, or have premarital sexual relations,” his father and two of his brothers wrote in an “executive report” about the case. “It is difficult, even impossible, to believe that David would suddenly act against the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ, break Chinese law, change his lifestyle, and abandon his family.”
While it surely may be difficult for a parent to believe, a friend of David’s who spoke on condition of anonymity offered an alternate narrative.
“Dave was conflicted about a lot of things, he was really struggling,” the friend told NK News. “It seemed like Dave felt sort of trapped, like he had been pushed into a certain mold. Like he thought, ‘I need to go my own way, live my own life.’”
David, said the friend, “wasn’t your standard Mormon kid. He saw the world in shades of grey; he was much more thoughtful than some people gave him credit for.“
“He told me there was a girl flying in to go hiking with him,” the friend continued. “Maybe she was someone he met while he was on his mission in Seoul, I don’t know. No one knows exactly who she was.”
The friend said David felt “bashful” about his relationship with a non-Mormon–especially an Asian one–which would be why he kept it a well-hidden secret.
“That conversation is never happening,” the friend said. “If anything, the fact that witnesses reported seeing him with someone kind of supports the argument that there was more to Dave than meets the eye.”
THE U.S. RESPONSE
At first, U.S. authorities were all over the case. Kathleen Sneddon said they “called us every night to bring us up to date.”
Then, all of a sudden, silence. The State Department won’t share anything about David–even with his parents–without express written permission from David himself, Roy Sneddon told NK News. Indeed, the American Citizen Services Section at the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu, confirmed that “U.S. privacy laws” render them “unable to provide any information regarding U.S. citizens.”
Per Greg Scarlatoiu, this is the “only case of an American going missing in China and never [being] found.”
If David Sneddon is alive, could it be that he doesn’t wish to be found?
There is no definitive estimate of the number of adults who go missing; part of the difficulty in pinning down a figure has to do with the fact that “missing” people don’t always consider themselves missing.
“Adults can walk away from their lives willingly,” reads a report from the national Volunteers in Police Service Program, a partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance. “These cases can present challenges if the family reports them missing, but the missing adult informs law enforcement that they do not wish to be found.”
Greg Scarlatoiu of HRNK told NK News that while his organization plans to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to try to pry loose what information the U.S. government has on David Sneddon, “Somebody else seems to have beat us to it.”
“The State Dept informed the person who submitted the FOIA request via letter that it has 14 documents on David Sneddon, of which 13 are classified and/or withheld for privacy reasons,” Scarlatoiu said in an email. “The released document says China announced that a thorough search of the region in the past had revealed no trace of David Sneddon.”
And so, the David Sneddon case remains unresolved. Is he in a North Korean prison right now? Perhaps. But it also might give the Sneddon family a modicum of peace to know that maybe–just maybe–he’s not.
Picture: Help Find David campaign