As technology brings the world together, traveling overseas has become safer and easier, but there are still some risks to worry about. This American family never thought that while on a trip to China, they would end up being involved in a mystery that would never be solved.
Kathleen and Roy faced the worst kind of nightmare for parents the day they found out that their son had gone missing. But this wasn’t a “normal” disappearance. While searching for their son, they were led down an unimaginable path – one that incriminates some of the world’s most powerful governments.
24-year-old David Sneddon was a student at Brigham Young University. David was a Mormon and went on regular missionary trips all around the world. But not all of David’s travels were motivated by religion. David loved traveling, discovering nature, and getting to know other cultures. He enjoyed hiking and was even fluent in Korean. That’s how he ended up in Asia, in 2004.
After finishing a mission in South Korea, David wanted to fly to China to do some sightseeing. “He said he was going to take a look around some touristy spots in Southeast China before he came back,” remembered David’s father. David frequently emailed his parents to let them know about his adventures. That’s how they found out that David was traveling to the province of Yunnan. But no one could have guess what was to come.
The Tiger Leaping Gorge, a beautiful canyon on the Jinsha River, is one of the most popular spots in Yunnan for tourists. Visitors are able to hike a trail that runs along the entire length of the gorge, and there’s a strong tourist industry that surrounds it. David’s parents knew that he was heading there, but that was the last time they heard from him.
David was supposed to meet up with his brother in Seoul after his trip to Yunnan. David never showed up. Kathleen immediately contacted the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. One official blew her off by saying, “you can’t lose an American in China.” Several days later, the parents got a phone call from the Chinese government. They had horrible news: David was dead. But was he really?
The official story that China gave David’s parents was that David had fallen to his death while hiking the gorge. But his body had not been found. The Sneddons didn’t believe their story. Kathleen said, “There’s no evidence of that—zero.” The family had plenty of questions that they wanted answers for. Even if that meant following in David’s footsteps.
A month after David’s disappearance, Roy and his other sons, Michael and James, went to Yunnan to look for David, or any evidence that led to his location. While they were hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge they realized that the trail wasn’t dangerous. “It was nothing difficult. It was no big deal compared to the areas of Wyoming we had backpacked through as a family,” said Roy. Unfortunately, that was the only clue they found.
The Sneddons had found a tour guide that claimed that he had walked the entire trail with David, which meant he didn’t fall mid-hike like the Chinese government claimed. They also spoke to the owner of a hostel at the end of the trail, and he said that David had stayed there. Their search brought them to Shangri-La, where a cafe owner remembered seeing David, but the trail stopped there.
Since David’s family couldn’t find anymore information, they had to leave the search for David up to the U.S. State Department. Unfortunately, the department accepted the story that the Chinese government gave them. Kathleen and Roy had no options left, but they never gave up. Seven years later, they received an unbelievable phone call.
The man who had called the Sneddons was Nicholas Craft, an attorney that also happened to be an expert on North Korea. He told David’s family that he believed David was taken by the North Korean government, considering how closely his disappearance followed other abductions of foreign nationals by North Korea. At first, the couple didn’t believe it. “I just thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard,” recalled Kathleen. But there were others that had this theory, as well.
Melanie Kirkpatrick was also a North Korea expert and she agreed with Crafts theory. “We know that North Korean operatives were active in that region around the same time David was there—with China’s full permission,” she said. Actually, Kirkpatrick had information from a government official that could prove that David was taken to North Korea.
Japanese minister of state Keiji Furuya told Kirkpatrick in 2013 that “it is most probable that a U.S. national has been abducted to North Korea.” In 2016, an organization in South Korea that specializes in North Korean abductions claimed that David had been abducted with the purpose of teaching Kim Jong-Un, and other government officials, English. Another man claimed to have details that were even more specific.
The head of Seoul’s Abductees’ Family Union, Choi Sung-Yong, claimed that he had information that proved that David had changed his name to Yoon Bong Soo, was now married to a woman named Kim Eun Hye, and had two children. But none of the information was confirmed, and despite the politician’s wishes to do so, the American government refused to take action.
Senator Mike Lee and Representative Chris Stewart from Utah sent a letter to President Trump in June of 2017, asking him to look into the possible involvement of North Korea in David’s disappearance. “Research from regional experts has uncovered disturbing parallels between David’s disappearance and the known operational patterns of kidnappings of citizens from many countries,” read the letter. Unfortunately, nothing has come of it.
Until undeniable proof is found, the State Department refuses to get involved. The Sneddons continue to look for their son. They find comfort thinking about David helping out an oppressed population. “If my son has a part in helping North Koreans have a normal life in any way, I would just be thrilled. If he, by being there, can bring attention to how North Korea is treating its people, we would be most pleased,” explains Kathleen.