The parents of an American college student, who went missing in China nearly eight years ago, are now certain he is being held in North Korea. But authorities in Washington and Beijing say there is no evidence about the fate of David Sneddon.
Families of Japanese abducted by North Korea over the decades met with U.S. government officials in Washington this week, as well as several members of Congress.
In addition to trying to raise the profile for their cause, they also drew parallels with their cases (some of which are unresolved), to a little-publicized mystery: the disappearance, more than seven years ago, of an American, named David Sneddon.
This came about after the Japanese families met last month in Tokyo with Sneddon's parents.
The 24-year-old exchange student in Beijing from Brigham Young University was last seen on Aug. 14, 2004 while traveling in China's Yunnan Province. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hong Lei, says at the request of U.S. diplomats from the consulate in Chengdu, authorities in Yunnan were asked to search for the missing American.
Speaking to reporters this week, Hong, said Yunnan authorities paid great attention to the matter and local police made every effort to search for Sneddon but did not locate him.
Chinese authorities initially speculated Sneddon fell into the treacherous Tiger Leaping Gorge. But an on-scene investigation by the family uncovered evidence Sneddon made it to a Korean restaurant after hiking.
The Sneddons long harbored suspicions that China's internal security agents may have apprehended him. They brushed off as highly unlikely that the young man met his demise as a result of a robbery in an area not known for banditry or, as he was religiously devout, decided to run off, perhaps with a local woman, in a remote part of China.
Sneddon's parents in Providence, Utah recall Chinese police later read them a statement assuring them their son was not being held by the authorities. They say the wording and body language of the police raised questions about whether David might have been abducted by others and taken out of the country. And that country, Roy Sneddon says, can only be North Korea.
"We're quite confident that David is alive, quite confident that whatever the mechanism that got him there he is in North Korea," he said.
North Korea is known to have abducted many people outside the country, including dozens of Japanese, some of whom were used to teach language and culture to spies.
Also kidnapped have been an undetermined number of South Koreans -- and according to previous U.S. congressional testimony -- around 30 women from Europe, China and Southeast Asia.
David's mother, Kathleen Sneddon, shares her husband's belief that the name of her son -- who had been a Mormon missionary in South Korea -- should also be on that list.
"His abduction fits a pattern of the way North Korea does it. He came to that restaurant -- a Korean restaurant -- and said goodbye to them and then disappeared in a few hours," she explained. "He's a perfect candidate to be taken because he speaks Korean fluently and was studying Mandarin Chinese at the time, and of course [he speaks] English. If they're looking for an English teacher, which is one of the theories, then he was a great candidate for it."
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, based in Washington, concurs with the family's conclusion. U.S. officials, however, have never stated that.
The State Department, this week, in response to a VOA query about the Sneddon case, said the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and its Consulate in Chengdu have been in "regular, ongoing contact with local authorities" about the disappearance since August 2004 and "will follow up on any new evidence in coordination with local authorities." But due to Privacy Act considerations, the State Department says, it cannot comment further.
In a telephone interview, Sneddon's parents expressed impatience and frustration with the lack of progress to resolve the disappearance of their son. They say they have no way to directly speak to North Korean authorities, but they do know what they would say.
"Whatever you're using him for, teaching English or some other matter, you don't need him any more. His family needs him. Let him go," she pleaded.
"Being a little more pragmatic, I would say 'what is your price? Reveal that you have him and let him go,'" Roy Sneddon added.
That is precisely what happened with another American, Charles Jenkins. He was released in 2004 along with his Japanese wife, who had been abducted by the North Koreans. Jenkins had been introduced to her while living in Pyongyang under strict supervision.
Jenkins was a U.S. army sergeant in South Korea who in 1965 crossed the DMZ and surrendered to North Korean forces. He was held for many years with three other American soldiers who had also defected from the South in the 1960s.