China, State Dep’t stonewall family of missing American David Sneddon

Outside Magazine’s detailed story on the unexplained 2004 disappearance of American hiker David Sneddon in China — and suspicions that he was abducted by North Korean agents — has generated much interest among more conservative North Korea watchers here. The story is the fullest accounting of the Sneddon case that I’ve read thus far, but not by much. Melanie Kirkpatrick previously wrote about Sneddon’s disappearance here. (See also.)


[via Outside Magazine]

The theory is that North Korean agents in China, on the hunt for refugees along the underground railroad to Southeast Asia, alerted to Sneddon’s exceptional fluency in Mandarin and Korean, and abducted him because they suspected him of helping refugees or because he would be useful as a language trainer for their spies.

I don’t claim to know what happened to Sneddon or whether it had anything to do with North Korea, but it’s clear that the Chinese government is hiding something. It intimidated witnesses, removed key documentary evidence, and generally stonewalled the family. I’m agnostic as to whether the Chinese are hiding something because they have something to hide, or because that’s just how they roll.

We should expect better from our own government. Unfortunately, the State Department has shunted the Sneddon family into a bureaucratic circle of hell that reads like an unpublished Kafka script. When Sneddon’s parents tried to find out what the State Department knew about their son’s disappearance, State stonewalled them and hid behind an obtuse interpretation of the Privacy Act — refusing to release the documents until David consented to the release of the documents, or was proven dead. (Had it wished to do so, State could have released documents years earlier, under the “health and safety” Privacy Act exception at 5 U.S.C. 552a(b)(8).)

Naturally, this has only intensified the curiosity and speculation of interested observers, journalists, and Utah’s congressional delegation about what China knows, what State has (or hasn’t) done to investigate Sneddon’s disappearance, and whether State should have raised the issue with the Chinese government at a higher level.

State’s history of stonewalling Congress and sidelining similar issues does nothing to allay our suspicions. David Sneddon disappeared just as Chris Hill was at the peak of his influence, and as the Bush Administration grasped in desperation for a deal with China and North Korea. This isn’t to say that Hill personally knew a thing about the case. I don’t even know if the East Asia Bureau or the Korea Desk connected Sneddon to the North Koreans. My guess is that they would have viewed the evidence for that connection as tenuous and circumstantial — and would have wanted to — and maybe that’s what the totality of the evidence will eventually reveal.

On the other hand, these were the same officials who were willing to suppress the news that North Korea built a nuclear reactor in Syria, to prevent a congressional backlash against Agreed Framework 2.0. The last thing they wanted was to push China (much less North Korea) for answers about a missing American, just as they were trying to push the Japanese abduction issue off the table.

Whatever happened to David Sneddon, our government owes his family forthright, honest, and respectful treatment. It hasn’t given them that yet.

Someone asked me yesterday what people who care about David and his family should do. My answer is that they should write to the Utah congressional delegation and ask it to (1) write to the Secretary of State demanding answers, and (2) ask the chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee to send their own letters, demanding that State release its documents on David’s case under the Privacy Act exception at 5 U.S.C. 552a(b)(9) (authorizing release to congressional committees).

That might not allow the Sneddon family to see the redacted and withheld documents, but it would allow the committee staff to examine them (in a classified setting, if necessary), to get a full and unredacted explanation of what State really knows, and to force State to pursue any leads that it should have, and that it still can pursue.


  1. I don’t opine on whether North Korea was involved. My point is that the U.S. and Chinese governments are both being less than forthright, and that speculation thrives in a vacuum. If both governments are forthright, they can at least tell Mr. Sneddon’s family that a full investigation has failed to provide a clear answer.


  2. You know, this kind of reminds me of the story surrounding Bernhard Wilden, a German Christian student who committed suicide in Beijing a couple of years back by jumping from a high-rise building and whose mother has since that time been claiming that he was murdered by the Chinese government or secret service for his Christian fundamentalist beliefs. I think that in the case of a missing person one has to take the likelihood of different scenarios into account and a young person becoming victim of a violent crime (even in China, with relatively low crime rates) or having a fatal accident while mountain climbing or even running away with a secret girlfriend are all a lot more likely than being kidnapped by North Korean security agents without good cause and far away from North Korea.