Family of missing American hopes Trump will raise his case with Kim

David Sneddon, shown in 1999 at a training center, went missing in 2004 while hiking in China.


By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: February 27, 2019

BEIJING — Where is David Sneddon? It's a question that the Sneddon family has been asking for more than 14 years, since the 24-year-old Brigham Young University student went missing while hiking in China.

And it's a question that they hope President Donald Trump will ask North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when the two meet this week for their second summit. One theory is that North Korea could have been involved in his disappearance.

"Of course I want an answer to what happened," said Jenny Sneddon Reuel, David's younger sister. They were numbers 10 and 11 out of 11 children, and were close growing up.

"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 with that reminds me of Dave," she said.

In the summer of 2004, after completing his junior year at Brigham Young University, David went to Beijing to get a jump-start on the Chinese language class he planned to take in his senior year. He had already completed a two-year Mormon mission to South Korea and had learned Korean.

With his summer classes done, David and a classmate, George Bailey, went out to see some of the tourist sites of China.

After Bailey returned to the United States, David continued to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a scenic area in Yunnan in southern China. He hiked through the gorge and ate several times at a Korean restaurant in Shangri-La. And then he simply disappeared.

His family searched for him but came up with nothing. The State Department and the Chinese authorities eventually concluded that he must have slipped into the gorge and fallen into the river, although his body was never found.

"We both felt so safe in China," said Bailey, recounting the questions he's asked himself over the years. "I went through survivor's guilt. In the intervening years I've learned to forgive myself. I couldn't know that he would be in danger and certainly not that the North Koreans might take him."

In 2011 Chuck Downs, a former Pentagon office who worked on North Korea and went on to lead the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, heard about David's case. Downs had worked on abduction-related issues — North Korea had made a habit of abducting people, particularly Japanese citizens, during the 1970s and 1980s — and became convinced that David had also been abducted by North Korea.

He went missing barely a month after Pyongyang released Charles Jenkins, the American soldier who had defected to the North during the Korean War and had been one of a tiny number of Americans in the closed country.

The following year, a Japanese group that works on abduction cases said it had Chinese documents proving that a 23- or 24-year-old American man had been arrested in Yunnan. Then, they said, he'd been taken by North Korean agents.

Later, the Abductees' Family Union in South Korea said it had information from Pyongyang that David was there, married with two children — and had been teaching English to Kim Jong Un.

When David went missing in China, Kim was the 20-year-old heir apparent, studying at Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang.

Soon after the South Korean reports emerged, the U.S. House passed a resolution calling on the Department of State and the intelligence community to continue investigating what happened to David, including considering the possibility he was abducted by North Korea.

The Senate in November passed an equivalent resolution, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams said it had been in touch with officials from the South Korean and Japanese governments about these claims and the organizations making them, and had also reached out to North Korea.

"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," she said.

Adams did not respond to questions about whether Trump had been briefed on his case.

But now, with the American president in the middle of an unprecedented outreach to North Korea, David's relatives and friends are hoping that Trump will use the opportunity to at least raise the case.

As the diplomatic efforts began gathering pace last year, Trump called for — and won — the release of three American citizens who had been detained in North Korea. But he has never mentioned David.

"We understand that this might not be the top of the American priority. We recognize that the denuclearization negotiations are paramount," said Bailey from his home in St. Louis, where he now works in the financial industry.

"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," Bailey said, adding that he feels powerless.

"Is anybody really trying to figure out what happened? Is Trump even going to ask?" he said.

Reuel, David's sister, said that while she recognizes none of the theories have been verified, she wonders if the president will raise the issue.

"I'm thinking it's a fair question to pose," she said, noting that Jenkins, after he was released from North Korea, wrote "anything is possible" in that country.

"I still don't have an answer to what happened to my brother," she 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."

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