Detainee Update: The David Sneddon Case



As we come back from summer vacation, we noted a few detainee stories, including the fact that North Korea is playing hardball with Otto Warmbier (our coverage of detainees is linked below). It is now coming up on six months since Warmbier was sentenced to a particularly harsh 15 years for an attempted theft of a propaganda poster. But he has been allowed only one consular visit through the Swedes, and that occurred on March 2, before his sentencing. Oddly, Warmbier received a harsher sentence than Virginia resident Kim Dong Chul, who got 10 years after being charged with outright espionage.

The new story is a revival of the possibility that the North Koreans may be holding a second student—David Sneddon—and since 2004. In 2014, I reported on a long feature in Outside Online by Chris Vogel which speculated that Sneddon may have been abducted by North Korean agents while hiking in China. Much of the evidence in the piece was circumstantial: Sneddon last being seen in a Korean restaurant; the reported presence of a North Korean agent in the region of Yunnan where he was last seen; Chinese who had seen Sneddon subsequently changing their stories; and the implausibility of a hiking accident on the trail where he was last seen. Somewhat harder evidence, however, came in information provided by a Tokyo nonprofit called the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea. A North Korean defector who had previously provided reliable information to the group had obtained Chinese security documents indicating that a 23- or 24-year-old American was arrested in Yunnan province on charges of helping illegal residents—which could have included North Koreans in transit—and that he ended up in the hands of five North Korean secret agents. (To my knowledge, these documents have never surfaced).

The new leads are coming from similarly motivated sources, and need to be taken with a large grain of salt. But accounts such as Robert Boynton’s compelling Invitation-Only Zone remind us that nothing is impossible in this regard. The thread of evidence is reported in a story in RT, by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post, and by the Japan News Network (in Japanese with video). The information includes a statement by Choi Sung-yong of South Korea’s Abductees’ Family Union that a source told his organization that Sneddon was living in Pyongyang and teaching English; the source claimed that Sneddon—who had excellent Korean—was kidnapped for the purpose of tutoring none other than Kim Jong Un. The Japanese story claims he has a wife and two children. Now CNN—which virtually monopolizes breaking abductee news—is on the case. The State Department has been pressed into investigating Sneddon’s disappearance by his Utah Representative, and has promised to raise the issue again with China but maintains that no verifiable evidence exists of his abduction.

Our hearts go out to the family whose hope is kept alive by stories that are just plausible enough not to completely dismiss. But I was particularly moved by a comment Sneddon’s father made to RT: “One young man from Utah is a sad and woeful story. But when you look at the total number...Pray for the people of North Korea that their lives will change.” Hear hear!

Previous Posts on the Detainees

More From

Related Topics