Did North Korea abduct US man in 2004 to teach Kim family English?

Mr David Sneddon, in a picture taken in 1999. He went missing in 2004. Four years ago, his parents received a phone call from a man in South Korea who said he had heard of a man fitting David's description who was living in Pyongyang.
Mr David Sneddon, in a picture taken in 1999. He went missing in 2004. Four years ago, his parents received a phone call from a man in South Korea who said he had heard of a man fitting David's description who was living in Pyongyang.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE SNEDDON FAMILY

SEOUL • Even by the standards of strange tales that come out of North Korea, this one is particularly bizarre.

Did Kim Jong Il's regime order the abduction of an American in 2004 so his children could learn English? Did North Korean agents, with the help of Chinese officials, snatch a student who had been hiking near the border with Myanmar?

Yes, or at least probably, if his parents, a South Korean abductees' advocate and human rights proponents are to be believed. No, if you are talking to American officials.

But Mr Choi Sung Yong, president of the Abductees' Family Union in Seoul, says he has information placing the American man, Mr David Sneddon, in Pyongyang.

Now 36, Mr David Sneddon goes by the Korean name Yoon Bong Soo. He is married to a woman named Kim Eun Hae and they have two children, a boy and a girl, Mr Choi said, citing evidence from an informant in Pyongyang.

David was taken to Pyongyang because Mr Kim Jong Il had given an order for his children - including the state's current leader, Mr Kim Jong Un - to be tutored in English by a native speaker, someone who could also teach them about American culture.

"He's a similar age to the Kim children," said Mr Choi, who devotes his days to trying to find out what happened to the missing.

In the summer of 2004, David, a 24-year-old Brigham Young University student who had completed a three-year Mormon mission to South Korea, was wrapping up a semester studying Chinese in Beijing.

He had learnt Korean and was planning to take a Chinese-language class in his senior year at his university. "He'd gone to Beijing that summer to get a head start in Mandarin," his father Roy Sneddon said. "His course work was done, so he said he was going to take a look around some touristy spots in southeast China before he came back."

David had been walking on an easy path in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, in Yunnan province that borders Myanmar. He had been to a Korean restaurant called the Yak Bar. And then he disappeared.

His parents thought their son, one of 11 children, had been detained by the Chinese. Mr Roy Sneddon and two of David's brothers went to the area to investigate but found nothing beyond a suggestion that he had slipped in the gorge and died.

The case went nowhere until four years ago, when David's parents received a phone call from a man in South Korea who said he had heard of a man fitting their son's description who was living in Pyongyang.

Every now and then over the past few years, some Japanese newspapers would raise the possibility that David had been abducted by North Korea, an idea that some in Washington saw as part of a Japanese effort to get the US government to pay more attention to North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens.

Mr Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said he was inclined to believe that David was abducted.

Mr Scarlatoiu noted the tense environment at the time. There was close cooperation between North Korea and nearby Myanmar - Pyongyang had reportedly been selling arms to the junta - and North Korean agents could have been operating in the area.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Did North Korea abduct US man in 2004 to teach Kim family English?'. Print Edition | Subscribe