The trip to South Korea was a chance for David to do some good. He was going to serve as a missionary in East Asia, along with his brother. It was going to be the trip of a lifetime. He even had enough time to do some sightseeing in China while he was there.
Little did David Sneddon know that this brisk hike through the mountain trails of Yunnan Province would change not only his life, but the life of all of his family and friends forever…
David Sneddon was 24 years old when he decided to travel to South Korea to serve as a missionary. A devout mormon, David was finishing up a linguistics degree at Brigham Young University. In August of 2004, David went on a hike to explore the rest of the Yunnan Province in China.
A few days later, David’s brother, who had been staying in Seoul, South Korea, was shocked to find that his brother hadn’t met up with him there like they had planned. In fact, he wasn’t even answering his phone. Fearing the worst, his family contacted the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. An official there told his mother that “You can’t lose an American in China,” and dismissed her concerns…
Several days after that, after much pressing from the Sneddons, the Chinese government finally offered an explanation: though a flimsy one. They told the family that their experienced traveler of a son has stumbled down Tiger Leaping Gorge while backpacking and drowned. Yet, they could offer no explanation as to why no one had found David’s body.
The Sneddons were of course skeptical of the Chinese explanation. That September, David’s father, Roy Sneddon, decided to take two of his other sons and fly to China. They were determined to retrace his son’s steps and walk the very trail where David hiked. They began by speaking to some of the locals for information…
Through the Gorge
The locals recalled having seen David as he made his way through the province and in fact one tour guide said he had walked the entire gorge with Sneddon up until they reached a youth hostel at the end of the hike. The Chinese authorities had been lying: David had made it successfully through the gorge.
The Sneddon boys continued their trek through the province, encountering many more people on the trail who recalled in great detail how they had met David. The hike through Tiger Gorge was not a dangerous one nor a difficult one. David had backpacked through more dangerous parts of Wyoming with his entire family. There was no way he could have died on the trail…
Trail Goes Cold
The Sneddons eventually made it to the small tourist city of Shangri-La, which was not far from Tiger Leaping Gorge. A cafe owner there had met David and described in detail what he’d said, what he looked like, even the food he liked to eat. Unfortunately, it was after the cafe that the trail went cold.
The family turned over their findings to the U.S. State Department, but officials there were convinced that the Chinese authorities’ theory of drowning seemed to make the most sense. “There’s no evidence of that – zero,” said David’s mother, Kathleen Sneddon, of the Chinese explanation. They had their own theories as to what happened…
David’s parents, as well as some sources inside Japan and South Korea, believe that David Sneddon was kidnapped by North Korea while hiking through China. They believe that agents of the then-dictator Kim Jong Il took David so that he could serve as an English tutor for his son Kim Jong Un.
David was fluent in Korean, which made him the perfect target for the North Korean agents. There is also the theory that David, because of his language and status as a missionary, was presumed by these agents to be helping North Korean defectors leave the country. If that was the case though, David was in more trouble than they initially thought…
History of Kidnapping
North Korea actually has a long history of kidnapping people. Once they get them back to their country, they force them to work in whatever position the dictatorship needs. It’s a sort of reverse underground railroad that imprisons and enslaves rather than emancipates.
As the years went on, information about David’s kidnapping by North Korea would trickle into the Sneddon family. In the 13 years since his disappearance, they have built up an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence. Yet even with all their hard-won evidence, the authorities on both sides of the Pacific continue to dismiss their claims…
Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert on North Korea, has been on David’s case for over a decade. According to Melanie, the region of China where David last seen, in Yunnan Province, was a popular route for the North Korean underground railroad.
David’s mother has stated that “David remains the the only American missing in China since World War II whose body has not been found and whose whereabouts remain unknown.” The lack of a body seems to give strength to the Sneddons and hope that he is still alive remains strong in their hearts…
The anguish over their missing son, who is one of 11 children, has stayed with the Sneddons for over a decade. Ever the optimists, the Sneddons have said that the only silver lining in their son’s disappearance, it is the thought that he might be helping out those in North Korea who are trapped under the thumb of a brutal dictatorship.
Never Stop Looking
“We want him home,” says Kathleen Sneddon. His mother remains convinced that David was taken for a purpose, to help with English. She went on to explain, in no uncertain terms, that the family will never stop looking for him. In 2016, the family’s hope and patience was finally rewarded…
A Japanese news outlet reported having seen David Sneddon in North Korea. They believe that he lives there and has lived there for the past 13 years working as an English teacher. They even believe that he has a wife and two children as well. This news seemed to light a fire under the US Department of State…
Living in PyongYang
The report stated that Sneddon is living in the capital city of Pyongyang, which also lends credence to the theory that David served as English tutor to Kim Jong Un before he was allowed to build a life of his own in the city. David’s story, while sad, is not nearly as bad as that of another American who was recently imprisoned in North Korea…
Otto Warmbier, who was another American college student visiting North Korea on a trip, was arrested over a year ago after being accused of stealing a propaganda poster. After a year in captivity, Warmbier was released, but when he returned home, his family found him much changed.
Damaged Upon Return
Otto was at death’s door when he arrived in the US. His sentence of hard labor in North Korea had obviously taken its toll and left him in a vegetative state. He died a few days later. We can only hope that wherever he is, David Sneddon is safe and living a happy life, despite the brutal dictatorship he has found himself in.