North Korea has a history of kidnapping foreign nationals from South Korea and Japan. Did they kidnap an American hiker 10 years ago?
North Korea is one of the most fascinating spots in the world to follow closely. In 2015, one of its most insane stories was finally translated and retold in English by Paul Fischer—and the tale is so outlandish, you’d think it was a work of fiction, not a piece of established and well-known East Asian history.
Most casual observers of North Korea are aware of its two most recent leaders’ many quirks: their love of basketball, films, and food. Before coming to power, the late Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea’s Ministry for Propaganda and became obsessed with movies. Throughout the course of his tenure producing films for the Hermit Kingdom, Kim acquired help from two kidnapped South Korean entertainers, arguably the most famous of their generation: ex-husband and wife and producer-actress pair Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok.
Through Fischer’s book, many may learn that the kidnapping of these film stars was far from an isolated incident. It is part of the Kims’ pattern of behavior.
North Korea Likes To Kidnap Foreign Nationals
It’s unclear just how many foreign nationals the North Korean government has kidnapped over the years. Some, like Choi and Shin, had clear roles to play in North Korea, with skill-sets the brutal dictatorship could easily employ. Others, like Japanese couples stolen off beaches during dates or a young Japanese teenager taken off the street on her way home from school, defy explanation.
Over the last several weeks, it’s come to the national media’s attention that there may be another kidnapping victim whose nationality hits close to home. For perhaps the first time, the regionally infamous North Korean practice of kidnapping foreign nationals has appeared on Americans’ radar.
In 2004, Utah native David Sneddon was hiking in China when he suddenly went missing. In recent years, those with inside knowledge of North Korea have intimated that he may not have died in a tragic accident, but rather ended up deep within the reclusive nation.
A lengthy piece in Outside Magazine chronicles the winding road Kathleen and Roy Sneddon have taken in pursuit of their son, who has been missing for over a decade. In the 2014 piece, Chris Vogel recounts,
On August 26, Kathleen was visiting grandchildren in Provo, Utah, when her cell phone rang. It was [her other son] Michael, calling from Seoul.
‘David isn’t here,’ he said. ‘He didn’t make it.’
That call would mark the beginning of the Sneddons’ agonizing quest, now nearly ten years old, to find their missing son. The search has taken family members to Yunnan province and back three times to look for clues, but with little assistance from Chinese or American officials, David’s disappearance has remained an infuriating and elusive case to solve. It wasn’t until April 2011 that the Sneddons finally received an explanation that seemed plausible, when a former high-level U.S. official called with a startling theory: ‘I believe David may have been kidnapped by the North Koreans.’
Why North Korea Might Kidnap David Sneddon
Moved by their quest for answers and the evidence they’ve collected, the Sneddons’ journey has now led to an unlikely place: the chambers of Congress. Senator Mike Lee of Utah has decided to take up David Sneddon’s case, in hopes of returning him to his family. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and Lee introduced a Concurrent Resolution this February urging the State Department and intelligence community to more thoroughly investigate Sneddon’s disappearance, without blindly accepting the Chinese government’s version of events. The resolution recently unanimously passed the House with a voice vote, garnering support of many key chairmen as cosponsors.
According to the Chinese, Sneddon likely fell into a gorge while hiking. When David’s parents and brothers went to China to investigate his disappearance, however, several individuals past the point where he supposedly fell vividly remembered encountering this tall, white, Korean-speaking American man.
Why might the North Koreans have kidnapped David? Just a few weeks after the release of Charles Jenkins, who spent decades in North Korea teaching English and appearing in North Korean films, Sneddon went missing. Considering his fluency in Korean (acquired during a missionary stint in South Korea with the Mormon Church), Sneddon would have been invaluable as a replacement English translator and instructor for North Korean officials. Kim Jong-Un is reportedly fluent in English, and could have Sneddon to thank.
“The U.S. State Department has written to our family to inform us that State is working to verify the recent reports originating out of South Korea that David was seen alive in Pyongyang and tutored the current dictator in the English language,” Caroline Pease, David Sneddon’s cousin, told the Federalist.
In the Wall Street Journal this week Melanie Kirkpatrick reported, “Mr. Sneddon’s name turned up again this month in an extraordinary statement by a South Korean humanitarian organization as reported by Yahoo News Japan. The Abductees’ Family Union in Seoul said that it believes the American is alive and well and living in Pyongyang, where he has a North Korean wife and two children.”
How Congress Might Uncover David Sneddon’s Fate
What use might the Concurrent Resolution accomplish, besides increased pressure on American officials to investigate Sneddon’s disappearance?
“The more visibility the case has the more likely it is that people will feel compelled to act,” Lee said in a conversation with The Federalist. “By people, I would include people in North Korea. Sometimes they’ve released foreign nationals they’ve been holding captive sometimes for years after stories have come out, when they realize the spotlight is on them.”
In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tradition that is North Korean history, Lee is correct that public pressure convinced Kim Jong-Il to admit to kidnapping some missing Japanese citizens.
The bill is still working its way through Congress—and if it passes, the timeline for success is this fall. After over a decade of waiting, increased media attention and these resolutions may go a long way towards helping the Sneddon family, not to mention the American people, find answers.