David Sneddon’s 2004 Abduction by North Korea

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North Korea (NK) is the world’s most secretive country, with about 25 million people. Most of what we know comes firsthand from its citizens who defected.

North Koreans must obey the “The Workers’ Party’s Ten Principles of the Establishment of a Unitary Ideology System.” They have no civil rights, and the regime governs every aspect of their lives. It shields them from the rest of the world and feeds information and news through heavily propagandized television.

According to Joseph Kim of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, who grew up in NK and later successfully defected, “The absence of a press not only prevents North Korean citizens from realizing and maximizing their full potentials and liberties but also poses significant security challenges for the U.S. government in its dealings with the North Korean regime. There is no American embassy in North Korea, and accessing external sources of information is nearly impossible.”

The country has experienced famine since the 90s, and its citizens eat mainly beans, corn, and potatoes. The BBC reports the North Korean government closed its borders in 2020, cutting off vital supplies, making matters worse.

Refugees began defecting from the country through the northern border to China and South Korea in the late 1990s. 

When defectors began to arrive in South Korea in the late 1990s, 947 arrived in the two or three years through 1998. In the three years from 1999–2001, an additional 1,043 came. In 2002, the number given refuge in the South was 1,142, and from that time, the number increased to its highest level of 2,914 in 2009. Since that time, the number of defectors slowly fluctuated downward, but well over a thousand arrived annually until 2020. The total number of defectors resettled in the South through 2020 is 33,752. 

Robert R. King, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Asia’s underground railroad, similar to that of the U.S. during the Civil War, is a network of people helping smuggle North Koreans out of the country through safe houses and ultimately to various countries in Southeast Asia. 

Defecting is a capital offense in NK and does not come without sacrifice. Often, defectors must leave families behind and pay brokers in other countries at least $5,000 to flee. Some have also bribed North Korean soldiers to look the other way. If caught, the government sends refugees to work camps or executes them. 

David Sneddon, a 24-year-old college graduate and missionary, disappeared in China in 2004. Years later, the North Korean government confirmed they had abducted him to be an English tutor to Kim Jong-un. David may have been involved in the underground railroad in China.

David was born to Roy and Kathleen Sneddon and is one of 11 children. Raised in Utah, he graduated from Brigham Young University, where he studied Korean and Mandarin languages. He became fluent in Korean and understood Chinese enough not to have an interpreter. 

David was a missionary for The Church of Latter-day Saints and had worked for a time in Seoul, South Korea. He later traveled to Beijing, China, and taught Korean to children there before arriving in the Yunnan Province in the country’s southwestern part.

In 2004, the Chinese government requested David and his companions to leave the country. However, David remained, and one companion stayed with him for a few days before leaving the country.  

David was last seen on August 10, 2004, hiking through Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang.

“Nearly 200 Chinese searchers combed the gorge carved by the River of Golden Sand between the 18,000-foot Dragon Snow and Jade Snow mountains,” Salt Lake Tribune reported. They recovered two bodies, but neither was David.

Chinese authorities claimed David had fallen to his death and drowned in the Jinsha River, although searchers never found his body.

David stayed in constant contact through emails with his family in Utah. When his parents had not heard from him, Roy and his brothers James and Michael flew to China and retraced David’s last movements in Yunnan Province two weeks after he vanished. They searched for evidence of his demise but found nothing. David’s backpack and the belongings he took with him have never been located.

The Sneddon men learned that several people recalled seeing David along his hike and in guesthouses. One was a hiker from Tibet who had traveled with David to the other side of the gorge. 

A group of tourists said they had met a young Westerner who had studied Mandarin at a university. Other witnesses saw David at a Korean restaurant in Shangri-La on August 14, 2004. However, they later told the police they were unsure it was him.

According to the Sneddon family, the cafe sat 100 meters from the police station, but for whatever reason, police never visited until six months after David went missing. 

A Korean woman who owned a cafe in the Yunnan Province also identified David. She said he had “meager funds” and reportedly told her he was leaving to return home. David’s family confirmed his plans to return to the U.S., and said he looked forward to going home. 

David’s father suspected the Chinese government knew of David’s involvement in the underground railroad.

In 2016, Kathleen Sneddon received a call from Chuck Downs, deputy director at the Pentagon’s East Asia office and a human rights committee director. He suspected the North Korean regime had kidnapped David as an English tutor for Kim Jong-un, possibly as a replacement for U.S. Army Sergeant Charles Jenkins.

In 1965, Jenkins was stationed at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in South Korea when he got drunk, deserted his post, and crossed into North Korea.

NPR reports, “For the first eight years in North Korea, it was a literal prison: He was held in a small room with three other American defectors. They were forced to memorize the works of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung – earning a beating for any error.”

NK held Jenkins in captivity for four decades as an English teacher. In 1980, he married a Japanese woman named Hitomi Soga, and they eventually fell in love. Jenkins remained in captivity until 2004, when the regime released him and his wife. He died in 2017 in Japan.

NK began abducting foreigners in the 1970s to aid in training its intelligence officers. It has kidnapped thousands of people from China, South Korea, Japan, and other nations around Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. In 2002, The North Korean regime acknowledged its responsibility for the abductions. 

One of the more well-known cases was the 1977 abduction of Megumi Yokota, then 13. She disappeared after walking home from school in Niigata, Japan. Megumi was forced to work as a language teacher in North Korea.

Per NKhiddengulag.org: “There is also some evidence that Yokota taught two sons of Kim Jong-il—Kim Jong-nam and Kim Jong-chul. When he defected, former agent Ahn Myong-jin testified that he received language instruction from Yokota at the Kim Jong-il Political and Military University.​”

Little is known about her life in NK. She married a South Korean abducted, and they had a daughter. The couple allegedly separated in 1993. The regime claimed Megumi had died in 1993, but another abductee later disputed it after release. Furthermore, DNA testing on ashes said to be Megumi’s turned out to be someone else. Megumi may still be alive.

It is unknown if David Sneddon is still alive as of this writing. However, there is evidence he married a woman named Kim Eun Hae, and they have two children together. He now goes by Yoon Bong Soo. An informant saw a man similar in appearance to David living in NK’s capital, Pyongyang. The informant relayed the information to the South Korean abductees’ advocate Choi Sung-Yong.

David’s family has fought for his release for nearly 20 years. But they have little help on their side other than a few Utah politicians. Nonetheless, they collected evidence and set up a website and Facebook page. The Facebook page has been inactive since 2022. 

Even though David is a U.S. Citizen, he is not listed with any missing person agencies in the country.

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