The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution at the end of September directing the U.S. government to investigate the disappearance of a young American who is suspected to be a victim of North Korean abduction. This Congressional action is expected to lead to a new vigorous inquiry into Pyongyang’s criminal abduction of foreigners and spur renewed U.S.-Japan cooperation to resolve these cases and bring home the victims.
The resolution entitled “Expressing concern over the disappearance of David Sneddon” was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives on September 28. Mr. Sneddon, then a 24 year old student at Brigham Young University in Utah disappeared in August 2004, while hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China’s Yunnan Province. Fluent in Korean and speaking some Chinese, he was sightseeing before heading home to Utah and graduate school after finishing a two-year mission for his church in South Korea.
The local Chinese authorities first informed U.S. officials and the Sneddon family that David had most likely fallen into the river and drowned to death while hiking through the gorge. However, the family’s own investigation soon afterward confirmed that David had finished his trek and been seen in a restaurant beyond the end of the gorge.
His disappearance immediately thereafter was not explained, although a number of factors indicated a North Korean connection. First, North Korean agents were actively operating in the area at the time with the acquiescence of Chinese officials, detaining North Korean defectors and their suspected supporters. Second, Charles R. Jenkins, a U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea in 1965 and was used by the regime to teach English to North Korean officials and agents, left North Korea one month before David’s disappearance. David’s youth and fluency in English and Korean would have made him particularly appealing as a replacement candidate. Third, Japanese specialists on North Korea affiliated with the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) obtained information from reliable sources in China that in August, 2004, an American student closely matching David’s description was detained by Chinese authorities who were observed to release him into the hands of North Korean agents.
The U.S. State Department was reluctant to tackle David’s disappearance, however, citing not enough evidence for abduction. As a result, a decade went by without progress. Finally, prompted by the Sneddon family’s own thorough investigation and persistent appeals, in February, 2016, the U.S. Congress took up the case of its own missing citizen. Concern about possibility of North Korean involvement in his disappearance was articulated in a Concurrent Resolution introduced into both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
Led by Utah Congressman Chris Stewart and Senator Mike Lee, the resolution was co-sponsored by all members of the Utah Congressional delegation and by the Senators for Nebraska, the states where the Sneddon family has lived. They were soon joined by other Representatives and Senators, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
In the background of the Congressional move, there is another notable factor. It is the appeal by a Japanese political leader, Keiji Furuya. While serving as the Chairman of the Headquarters for the North Korean Abduction Issue of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Minister in Charge of the North Korean Abduction issue in the Abe government, he was particularly concerned that the United States would make the same mistake of inaction on the Sneddon case that Japan made in the 1990’s regarding the disappearance of Japanese abduction victims. In early 2013 he decided to take the case directly to his American counterparts. Since then, he has made several trips to visit members of the both chambers of Congress, beginning with members of the Utah delegation, David Sneddon’s home state, and personally urged them to pursue investigation of his disappearance.
Mr. Furuya’s objective was to encourage a timely investigation into the Sneddon disappearance as well as to broaden support for U.S.-Japan cooperation to resolve the North Korean abduction issue for all abduction victims. U.S. Congressional success in spurring a more serious investigation of the Sneddon case could become a new and powerful incentive for both allies to confront the rogue nation together on the abduction of Japanese, Americans and citizens of several other countries, and bring home the victims.
Suddenly in early September world-wide attention focused on the David Sneddon case. Various news media globally reported on sensational new information that David was reportedly living in the North Korean capital. U.S. Congressional interest dramatically increased and the Concurrent Resolution was brought to the floor of the House for a vote before its pre-election recess.
In the United States, CNN News reported, “David Sneddon, an American student who went missing in China, has turned up in North Korea as Kim Jong Un’s tutor.” The New York Daily News also reported with a banner headline that “Utah student missing since 2004 believed to be trapped in North Korea as Kim Jong Un’s English tutor.” US News and World Report published an article with a headline “Missing American Student Held in North Korea Since 2004, Report Says.” Similar reports were also published in numerous other American regional and local news media.
Outside his home country, newspapers, television and internet media in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Middle East followed suit. Among them are the Independent and Daily Mail, both British publications, Trending News of India, the New Zealand Herald, Kyodo News Agency of Japan, Korean Central News Agency of South Korea, and Saudi Arabia’s Bridget of Arabia.
This global reaction was triggered by a statement of Mr. Choi Sung-Yong, head of the South Korean Abductees Family Union which advocates the rescue of South Koreans abducted into North Korea. Mr. Choi said he had received information out of North Korea that David Sneddon was kidnapped by North Korean agents in China and is currently alive in Pyongyang; he has a North Korean wife and two children and he has taught English to diplomats, intelligence officials and the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un. The authenticity of Mr. Choi’s information remains unconfirmed. First carried by South Korean and Japanese media, the reports were quickly picked up by other media around the world.
This turn of events increased the number of sponsors of the House resolution in a couple of weeks to more than 30, including several Committee important chairs, and prompted Utah Congressman Chris Stewart to push for its passage on September 28. Before the voice vote, he stressed the need for thorough investigation into the Sneddon case by the U.S. government and for cooperation with the governments of Japan, South Korea and China.
“As the resolution indicates, there is more work to be done by the State Department and Intelligence Community”
Stewart said after the resolution was adopted, “Particularly given the recent reports out of South Korea that David may be alive, David’s family deserves answers, and until we find these answers we should continue to pursue all possible explanations for David’s disappearance.”
The House of Representatives vote is expected to create strong momentum for an intensive investigation and additional pressure on North Korea for answers. Japan looks forward to a heightened level of U.S.-Japan cooperation for resolving the cases of the North Korean regime’s kidnapping of all foreign nationals including Japanese.