Lee Calls on State Department to Continue Search for David Sneddon

February 10, 2016

Mr. President, I’d like to thank Senator Gardner and Chairman Corker for their leadership and tireless efforts on the Foreign Relations Committee in dealing with the national security challenges posed by North Korea.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I periodically receive intelligence briefings on North Korea’s military capacity and the political will of its leaders to threaten the United States and our interests abroad.

Based on these briefings, and the extensive intelligence informing them them, I believe we need to embrace an all-of-the-above approach to confront North Korea’s continued development of ballistic-missile, nuclear, and cyber technologies.

These threats have become too serious to ignore and too complex to confront with anything short of a coordinated strategy that’s prepared to employ the full force of the United States government – including all of our diplomatic, intelligence, economic, and military resources.

As Americans, it can be easy for us to forget just how lucky we are to live in a free and open society.

Most of us – myself included – simply have no idea what it’s like to live under a totalitarian regime like the one that has kept the North Korean people in a state of impoverished servitude – cut off from the rest of the world – for generations.  

But every so often, the mask slips... and there’s an event that gives the world a clue about what can happen when a nation-state operates – and thrives – behind a veil of secrecy and mystery.

For me and many of my fellow Utahns one of these clues came nearly 12 years ago when a young man from Utah suddenly went missing in southern China.

In August 2004, David Louis Sneddon disappeared while hiking in the Yunnan Province of China.

He was 24 years old at the time – a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. After having spent his summer studying Mandarin in Beijing, David wrote to his family about his plans to hike the scenic Tiger Leaping Gorge along the Jinsha River in southern China. That was the last time David’s family would ever hear from him. 

His passport and his credit cards were never used again. 

What happened to David Sneddon – who is, to my knowledge, the first American since the 1970s to go missing in China without an explanation? How can a young man – who is skilled in a country’s language and knowledgeable of their culture – simply vanish without a trace? 

These questions have answers, Mr. President, but for more than a decade David’s family members, friends, and loved ones, as well as regional experts, reporters, and embassy personnel, have searched for them in vain. 

For their part, local authorities point to the Jinsha River for answers. They contend that the lack of physical evidence surrounding David’s disappearance could indicate that he fell and was swept away by the river, despite the fact that his body was ever found. 

While it’s certainly possible for that to happen to an unsuspecting tourist hiking on unfamiliar terrain, David was not a novice outdoorsman. He was an Eagle Scout and an avid hiker who had years of experience trekking over rugged landscapes across the American West.

In recent years investigative reporters and regional experts have suggested an alternative explanation of David’s disappearance.

For instance, on April 25, 2013, Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a well-regarded expert on North Korea, wrote an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal, which I ask unanimous consent to be entered into the record.

Kirkpatrick’s research shows that David’s disappearance in China fits the pattern of foreign-national kidnappings by North Korea in East Asia since the 1970s. While this might sound strange to Americans, it is an issue with which the people of Japan and South Korea are tragically all too familiar.

The circumstances of David’s disappearance add a level of credibility to this theory. For instance, the area near where David was travelling is a well-known thoroughfare on an “underground railroad” for North Korean dissidents trying to escape to Southeast Asia. As a result, this area is monitored and patrolled by North Korean government agents, who were involved in the capture of a high-level North Korean defector and his family in the area only months before August 2004.

David was fluent in Korean, thanks to spending two years serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea, so he matched the profile of activists in this area who were thought to be assisting North Korean escapees.

And in a coincidental twist of fate, David disappeared only a month after Charles Robert Jenkins, an Army deserter, was released by the North Korean government after having spent nearly 40 years imprisoned in the totalitarian state, forced to teach English to North Korean intelligence agents. An American who spoke fluent Korean would be an attractive replacement for Charles Jenkins.

Three weeks after his disappearance, David’s father and two of his four brothers travelled to China and retraced David’s planned steps through the Leaping Tiger Gorge. The results of their fact-finding mission – including their conversations with local residents and businesses, tour guides, and travelers – have been shared with the State Department and detailed in an excellent piece by Chris Vogel published in Outside Magazine in 2014. 

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence discovered by David’s father and brothers is that several people – including a trail guide – who had been hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge around the time of his disappearance remember interacting with a young man fitting David’s description.

David’s family also met with the owner of a small Korean restaurant in the city of Shangri-La, a bustling tourist outpost with convenient access to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. When she saw a photograph of David, the young restaurant owner lit up. She immediately remembered David – and for good reason.

Not only did David stand out because of his fluency in Korean, but he reportedly visited the restaurant three separate times over the course of two days while he was in the city.

Indeed, according to the Outside Magazine article, the last time anyone saw David – on August 14, 2004 – he was reportedly leaving a Korean restaurant.

At first glance, this may seem like a minor detail. But seen in the right light, it is an ominous clue.

According to many regional experts, there is a historical pattern of North Korean agents using Korean-run restaurants in China, Japan, and elsewhere to prey on their targets for kidnapping and abduction.

Despite these reports, there have been no further, or more fruitful, leads regarding David’s whereabouts. People move away or change their stories, embassy and State Department staff move to different assignments, and the trail goes cold.

Mr. President, for nearly 12 years we have been looking for David. Along with his family, there are many people who deserve credit for the contributions they have made to this effort.

In particular, I’d like to thank Ambassador Robert King, the Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues – and a longtime personal friend – as well as his office for the attention they have given to David’s case and the good-faith efforts they have made over the years to try to find answers. I commend Ambassador King for his work on this complex, sensitive issue.  

But there is still work yet to be done: an upstanding American citizen is still missing, and an aggrieved family – and indeed an entire community – continues to wait and pray for a resolution. Which is what brings us here today.

Mr. President, the first and most important responsibility of the United States government is to ensure the safety and freedom of the American people at home and abroad. When American citizens travel overseas, the State Department plays a critical role in fulfilling this core constitutional duty.

The amendment I am filing today – which I plan to submit as a stand-alone resolution with Senators Hatch and Fischer – gives the sense of the Senate that the State Department, in conjunction with the intelligence community, should continue to fulfill that obligation to David Sneddon and his family. 

A companion bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Chris Stewart and the Utah delegation.  

The State Department’s responsibilities in this matter include investigating all plausible explanations behind David’s disappearance, and leaving no stone unturned in trying to return one of our brothers to his family.

At the time of his disappearance, David had his whole life ahead of him – and he was already planning for it.

Before setting out to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge on that fateful August day in 2004, David had signed up to take the LSAT, a first step toward applying to law school; he had arranged business meetings back home in Utah to get an early start on pursuing his dreams of entrepreneurship; and, eager to get back to BYU’s beautiful campus, he had already paid for his student housing for the upcoming fall semester.

But he never had the chance to do any of these things, and the Sneddon family deserves to know why.

Mr. President, the greatest threat to totalitarian regimes is the truth – that the world may learn of the horrors they perpetrate every day against their people, and that their people may learn that there is a world, full of freedom and opportunity, beyond the ironclad borders of their enslaved homeland.

It is in pursuit of the truth – about David Sneddon’s whereabouts – that I file this amendment today.

Thank you.