The Outside Blog

Adventure : Exploration

Quer Ficar Comigo? Wanna Make Out?

“I said, ‘Okay one.’” She brandished her index finger. “One quick one. Then he stuck his tongue down my throat.”

“Oooh, yuck. What did you do then?”

“I retreated into the kitchen. They were really nice to me. Everyone was so nice to me.”

It was 3:30 in the morning. I was looking blearily at my 16-year-old daughter, Molly, who had just returned from her first party in Penedo, the small, upriver town in northeastern Brazil where we'd come to live for a year. 

Before leaving the U.S., I’d had my share of anxious visions about what could happen to our kids in a small town in Brazil. This wasn’t new. My husband, Peter, and I had thought through our worst nightmares before every trip abroad. But when it was just the two of us, our perception of the risks was different. We put ourselves pretty far out into the “bush”—hiking across China for our honeymoon, crossing borders into small African countries on the brink of revolution. We had that youthful sense of invincibility. But then we had kids.

When we were choosing where to go after our second child, Skyler, was born, we'd said no malaria; so we chose malaria-free Spain. When the kids were six and 10, we chose the capital city of Mozambique. It had malaria, but wasn’t far from Johannesburg and good medical care. But they were young then. Now we had teens. 

So Brazil. Would our beautiful blonde daughter’s celebrity status protect her from predatory men, or would she be seen as a special prize, a conquest, a target? We’d been warned by Brazilian friends at home that it was common practice at parties to be asked by someone you’d just met if you wanted to make out. “Quer ficar comigo?” No strings attached.

So when Molly had come home from school earlier that day jubilantly announcing that she’d been invited to her new friend Keyla’s 15th birthday party, we thought we were prepared. She’d been told to keep her eyes on her drink and stick with friends. Molly barely spoke Portuguese and so far only one person we'd met spoke English. But Molly can dance and at a party, in Brazil dancing well will get you a long way.

“Mom, what should I wear?”

“What do you have?” (We'd moved to Brazil with one duffle bag each.)

At 10 that night, another new friend, Leyla, came to pick Molly up. Molly was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and her favorite multicolored flat sandals. She opened the door. There was Leyla—in a satin minidress and four-inch heels. Molly rushed back into her room.

“Mom, what can I wear?!”

She re-emerged in a short black dress and the only heels she owned, two-inches high with a tame strap.

“Have fun,” I called as she slipped out the door. I doubted she’d heard me, or the trepidation in my tone.

Parties in Penedo start at 10 or 11, after our bedtime. We had no car. We’d considered finding a taxi driver to bring Molly home in the wee hours, but thought better of it. After midnight, if they were willing to work, chances are they would be doing it under the influence. So she'd be stranded at the party with no way to bail. We kept our cell phones by our bed, figuring maybe we could call Zeca, the young lawyer who spoke English and was fast becoming a friend. It turned out Zeca was often at the same parties.

That first time, I woke up at three a.m. It was still dark. No sign of our 16 year old. Though I wished she were home, I was less anxious than I would have been in the U.S. Perhaps this was because, abroad, I was too in the dark to know what to worry about. And in this small town, the big U.S. bogeyman, drunk driving, didn’t exist. Lots of people were drunk but almost no one was driving. Kids didn't have cars. In Brazil, the parties are also intergenerational, so I knew Leyla’s mom was there and would bring them home.

I went to lie down on the living room couch. Not long after, Molly quietly opened the front door.

“How was it?” I asked sleepily.

“Oh, Mom, it was really fun, but…It was kind of overwhelming, too. There was lots of dancing. But these guys, they made a big circle around me and were shouting, “Mohly, Mohly, I love you, I love you.”

“In English?”

“Yeah. In English. For a long time. And they kept asking me to fica (to make out) with them. My friends were trying to protect me. But finally, I gave in. I told Felipe, you know, the guy who worked at the desk at the pousada, that I would, cuz at least I kinda knew him.”

That first introduction was an eye opener. You can hear about a custom in another culture but what do you do when it's actually dropped in your lap. Do as the Romans do? Some things are easier to try on than others, like sampling new food. But making out with strangers...?

Well, we’d been warned this would happen to Molly. But to our son Skyler? It turned out that at age 12, our tan, blond, blue-eyed son had an impassioned female following, both his age and older, acquaintances and total strangers. They’d regularly ask him to kiss them, at school or on the street. Anywhere would do.

“Mom, what do I do? I want to go play tennis but there’re all those girls out there!” And there were; a little, tittering clutch eagerly watching our front door from the concrete benches in the plaza.

“Can you just say we don’t do this in the U.S.? That we don’t kiss strangers?”

“I’ve tried that. They just say, 'But this is Brazil'.”

In Skyler’s first few months in school, we received several love notes a week, surreptitiously slipped under our front door. Once I heard it happen and whipped the door open, mischievously hoping to catch the author. She’d vanished. On purple or pink paper, with heart or rainbow stickers, in a combination of Portuguese and broken English, they ranged from the fairly innocent (and somewhat inscrutable), “Never get out of Brazil that is a rock. I’ll die” to the racier “Just want your baby well,” or “I’am Prostitute and you is my Bum” or better yet “Fuck! Te Amo!”

One Saturday, Skyler took part in a Capoeira demonstration at a neighboring school. We'd recently begun to take lessons in this Brazilian martial art/dance form. As soon as his Capoeira group arrived, he was surrounded by girls wanting to pose for pictures with him.  Our "California surfer," with his shaggy blond hair and clear blue eyes, stood dutifully for one selfie after another, a big white smile, frozen painfully on his face. Theoretically, this should be a boy’s dream, but it wasn’t.

This is what we began to realize about cultural immersion. It's not just about language, which was where most of our focus had been. Certainly that plays a part. But there are all those other things. All that body language; what seems suggestive in one culture might be casual in another. All that learned understanding of what's acceptable and what's not; a curt response to a social advance that feels rude in one culture might be routine in another.

Months later, I asked Molly about the men at another party during Brazilian Carnavalthis one an all-nighter, with bands and huge crowds—she said, "Oh the men are fine. I just pry them off my face."

Okay she's in, I thought, she's immersed. And then I thought: she'll be able to handle anything.

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Did North Korea Kidnap an American Hiker?

In the Northern reaches of China’s Yunnan province, just before the rolling hills and deep, river-carved ravines of the Yungui Plateau give way to cascading sheets of limestone and spectacular karst, two mountains—Jade Dragon and Haba Snow—jut three and a half vertical miles into the sky. Separated only by the Jinsha River, a 100-foot-wide whitewater tributary of the Yangtze, these scabrous peaks form one of the world’s deepest river canyons: Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Etched into the steep terrain above the wild rapids, the 16-mile High Trail climbs more than 3,700 feet through the canyon’s thick mountain brush and sheer cliffs. The trail, which usually takes two days to complete, is considered a must for trekkers searching for remote panoramic vistas in China, with Tibet looming to the west and Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to the south. The route is littered with commercial guesthouses, where tens of thousands of tourists—almost exclusively from China or South Korea—can buy a hot meal and sleep in a real bed.

On August 11, 2004, He Shuchang, a local guide, had been trekking for hours with his two clients, a married couple from Hong Kong, when he spotted a pale Westerner marching up the mountain path in the twilight. The stranger wore a blue T-shirt and gray shorts, with a fanny pack tied to his waist and a floppy brimmed rain hat covering his prematurely balding head. He Shuchang was used to seeing the occasional Westerner. Still, when the man emerged over the rise, then politely asked in flawless Mandarin if he could join the group, He Shuchang was stunned. What was this stranger doing here?

{%{"quote":"What most Americans don’t know is that North Korea has been systematically kidnapping foreigners for the past 60 years."}%}

The man introduced himself as David Sneddon, an American college student who was taking summer language classes in Beijing. He seemed charming and curious, peppering the Hong Kong couple with questions about themselves and alternating between Mandarin and English. The couple seemed to enjoy him, so He Shuchang let him stay. They hiked together for several hours, eventually reaching the far end of the gorge, where they all spent the night at Tina’s Guesthouse. The next morning, David continued alone up the route away from the High Trail, vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared.

In Logan, Utah, David’s parents, Roy and Kathleen, were thinking about their son. They had last seen him three and a half months earlier, when David, 24, stopped by their home to pack his clothes and say goodbye. He had just completed his junior year at Brigham Young University and told them that his summer plan was to go to Beijing to study Mandarin, renting an apartment with fellow BYU student George Bailey. He would then spend a couple of weeks hiking around western China.

Some parents might be leery of such a plan, but not Roy and Kathleen, both devout Mormons. Their 11 children had completed lengthy missions around the world; David served in South Korea. David was not as academically gifted as his siblings but he was a hard worker, and his parents admired his yearning for a life of adventure and travel. Besides, he planned to return in the fall to finish his bachelor’s degree in Asian languages and apply to law school.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"David Sneddon in China. He was an accomplished language student who knew English, Chinese, and Korean.","align":"left"}%}

From Beijing, David e-mailed his parents two or three times a week. When classes ended in early August, he wrote with details of his plan to travel until the 26th, the day he was scheduled to fly to Seoul, where his older brother, Michael, ran a corporate translation business. “I’m in Lijiang now, in western Yunnan province,” he wrote on August 11. “I will take a bus to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge in about half an hour. I am having a great time here but nonetheless am excited to come home.”

A week went by without another e-mail. Roy and Kathleen began to worry, but told themselves that their son was probably in a remote area without Internet access. They felt comforted knowing that David would soon meet up with his brother.

On August 26, Kathleen was visiting grandchildren in Provo, Utah, when her cell phone rang. It was Michael, calling from Seoul.

“David isn’t here,” he said. “He didn’t make it.”

That call would mark the beginning of the Sneddons’ agonizing quest, now nearly ten years old, to find their missing son. The search has taken family members to Yunnan province and back three times to look for clues, but with little assistance from Chinese or American officials, David’s disappearance has remained an infuriating and elusive case to solve. It wasn’t until April 2011 that the Sneddons finally received an explanation that seemed plausible, when a former high-level U.S. official called with a startling theory: “I believe David may have been kidnapped by the North Koreans.”

At night, satellite photos of the Korean Peninsula show South Korea crackling with activity and light. By contrast, its neighbor and longtime adversary, North Korea, remains virtually dark.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, February 28, 2013.","align":"right"}%}

Surprisingly little is known about the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Even today information trickles across its borders only in small doses. It is considered the most repressive and corrupt nation on the planet, ruled by the Kim family, a gangster dynasty whose patriarch, Kim Il Sung, took power at the end of World War II. He was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il and, more recently, his grandson Kim Jong Un—all three of them maintaining power by brainwashing citizens with relentless propaganda and enslaving detractors in brutal prison camps. Americans have come to know North Korea as a reliable source of headlines that are both bizarre (“Dennis Rodman Claims Kim Jong Un Didn’t Actually Have Uncle Executed and Fed to Dogs”) and frightening (“North Korea Vows to Use New Form of Nuclear Test”).

What most Americans don’t know is that North Korea has been systematically kidnapping foreigners for the past 60 years. Since the Korean War Armistice in 1953, North Korea is suspected to have abducted 3,824 South Koreans (in addition to more than 100,000 taken during the war) and as many as 100 Japanese and 200 Chinese. According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, there have been at least 25 additional abductees from countries including France, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Romania, and Thailand.

The regime’s motives are not always clear, but over the years a few patterns have emerged. In 1976, after Kim Jong Il began efforts to strengthen his intelligence operations, the nation started targeting linguists who could teach foreign languages to North Korean spies selected to carry out operations abroad. In 1987, for example, North Korean agent Kim Hyon Hui, who spent three years taking Japanese lessons from an abductee, boarded Korean Air Flight 858 with a fake Japanese passport and planted a bomb that killed 115 people.

{%{"image":"","size":"small","caption":"Ex-North Korean agent Kim Hyon Hui arrives in Japan.","align":"left"}%}

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":" ","align":"right"}%}

More recently, North Korea has kidnapped people in China to deter dissidents from trying to escape—as well as dissuade others from assisting them. That’s where Yunnan province comes in. Despite its heavenly mountain setting, the region has long been a thoroughfare for an Asian Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and secret routes that shuttles North Korean refugees through China and into Southeast Asia. Aided mostly by Christian activists from the West—many of whom speak Korean—refugees must escape North Korea and then elude Chinese authorities, who have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harboring them. North Korean security agents also operate along the route, searching for fugitives with the tacit permission of the Chinese government.

While the subject of North Korean abductions is not widely publicized in America, in Japan it is considered a top international human-rights issue. The government and various nonprofit groups spend more time and effort gathering intelligence on the phenomenon than in any other country in the world. In 2002, North Korea’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong Il even admitted to the kidnapping of 13 Japanese citizens in the late seventies and early eighties. The regime returned five but claimed that the other eight had died while in detention. (Several of the death certificates provided by North Korea turned out to be phony, and DNA testing of the supposed remains was inconclusive.)

In many of the Japanese abduction cases, highly trained North Korean agents snatched the victims inside Japan without leaving a trace. In fact, many of the victims’ parents spent decades with no inkling that North Korea was involved. Another common trait: nearly all of the abductions occurred in the summer months leading up to August 15, North Korea’s Liberation Day. Additionally, a good number of these victims fell prey inside Korean-run cafés and restaurants. In 1977, North Korean agents lured Japanese citizen Yataka Kume into one such restaurant and abducted him. Three years later, Tadaaki Hara was kidnapped from a Korean noodle shop in Osaka. In 2000, Reverend Kim Dong Shik, a permanent U.S. resident from the Chicago area, was in China helping North Korean refugees when he was reportedly abducted from a Korean café. He was later executed.

And in 2004, David Sneddon was last seen leaving a Korean restaurant in Shangri-La, a small tourist city not far from Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was August 14, the day before Liberation Day.

I first met Roy and Kathleen Sneddon at their house outside Logan. Logan is home to Utah State University, where the two met as undergrads nearly 60 years ago. Hand-built by Roy and David in 2001, their bright blue house stands out in an otherwise drab neighborhood overlooking the Wasatch Mountains. Roy and Kathleen, both 78, are short and trim with graying hair.

In the weeks that followed David’s disappearance, information trickled in from the U.S. embassy. The Chinese had conducted an initial investigation and came up empty. David was not in any hospital, mental ward, or jail. No body had surfaced. His passport had not been used, and the $700 in his bank account remained untouched. Local police had ruled out murder and violent crime, which were practically nonexistent in the region. With seemingly little evidence to go on, Chinese officials concluded that David had simply fallen into the Jinsha River and died.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Tiger Leaping Gorge. A handful of hikers have drowned in the gorge, but all of their bodies were recovered.","align":"right"}%}

Back in Utah, Roy and Kathleen were skeptical. David was an experienced hiker and an Eagle Scout who spent his childhood backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. It was hard to believe that their son had slipped on such a heavily trafficked trail and fallen into the river. But if David had fallen and drowned, it seemed even less likely that his body hadn’t turned up. While mudslides and falling rocks during the rainy season have claimed a handful of hikers in Tiger Leaping Gorge over the past two decades, in every instance the body was recovered.

Roy and his two sons, Michael and James, decided to go to Yunnan and retrace David’s path for themselves. On September 13, 2004, the men reached the small village of Qiaotou just outside the trailhead at the gorge. Accompanied by a translator and a hiking guide, the Sneddon family started down the trail. Right away they saw missing-person posters with David’s photo. They also saw police officers wandering aimlessly with bloodhounds, ostensibly searching for David despite a month passing since his disappearance. “It was ridiculous,” says Michael, who decided the effort was all for show. “We just laughed and said thanks.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Roy, Michael, and James Sneddon in Tiger Leaping Gorge.","align":"left"}%}

The three Sneddon men carried on, marveling at the scenery and feeling guilty that they were almost enjoying themselves. The group had been hiking less than two hours when they ran into a trekker headed the other way. His name was He Shuchang.

He Shuchang knew the Sneddons’ guide and described his encounter with a Westerner a month earlier, hiking with him to Tina’s Guesthouse at the far end of the gorge. When He Shuchang recognized a photo of David, Roy couldn’t believe his luck. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but it seemed to be clear evidence that David had made it through the gorge.

When Roy and his sons arrived at Tina’s the next afternoon, however, the police were already there. A worker told them that the owner was out shopping and that no one could remember whether David had stayed there. Chinese law requires hotels and guesthouses to keep a written log of foreign visitors, complete with names and passport numbers. When Michael asked to see the log, the man at the check-in desk told him that every month for the past year was available but August had been confiscated by the police. That was the case at every lodge they visited along the trail. “It was highly suspicious,” says Michael, “and it certainly felt like a cover-up.”

From Tina’s the road splits in two. One route loops back to the trailhead and then south to Lijiang. The other heads north to the city of Shangri-La, so named by the Chinese in 2001 to promote tourism. David’s final e-mail mentioned that he was excited to be “really, really close to Tibet.” Following a hunch, the Sneddons took the road to Shangri-La.

In the city, the Sneddons spent a fruitless afternoon asking shop owners about David. Discouraged and somewhat daunted by the size of the city, the three men gathered together at their guesthouse that evening and prayed. Afterward they agreed to give Shangri-La one more day.

The next morning, James stumbled upon the Yak Bar, a cozy, one-room Korean restaurant with wooden floors and pink walls adorned with Korean flags, located 100 yards from a police station and a massive jail. Given David’s love of all things Korean, the Sneddons went to check it out and met one of the owners, a round-faced woman in her mid-twenties named Zhang Xiao Fen. Looking into her dark brown eyes, Roy could tell that Zhang understood exactly what was going on. When Roy showed Zhang a photo of David, her eyes lit up and she smiled. “She definitely remembered David fondly,” Roy says. “It was tremendously exciting.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Zhang Xiao Fen, one of the owners of Yak Bar, tells Roy that David had been at the bar the day before he disappeared.","align":"right"}%}

She accurately described his clothing and recalled that he spoke Mandarin and Korean. He had come into the restaurant three times over two days and had eaten cheaply, like a student on a tight budget. Zhang told the Sneddons that David stopped by for the last time around noon on August 14 to say goodbye; she assumed he was leaving Shangri-La. That would have made sense, given David’s original plan. To make his scheduled flight to Seoul, he would have had to get to Lijiang that evening and hop on an early-morning bus on the 15th.

In all, the Sneddons found 12 people in the gorge and in Shangri-La who remembered David and could identify his picture. All signs pointed to David making it out of the gorge and disappearing in Shangri-La, not doubling back and tumbling into the Jinsha River. “At this point,” Roy says, “we were 100 percent certain that what the Chinese government told us was not true and that David did not fall into the gorge.”

When the Sneddons returned to Utah, they set up a website, Finding David Sneddon, and wrote a 74-page report detailing their trip, which they sent to the U.S. State Department. Surely the government would recognize their discoveries and act.

The first response came by e-mail. Gavin Sundwall, a diplomat stationed at the embassy in Beijing, wrote that a special-investigation unit had looked into the Sneddons’ report and had not “produced any tangible leads.” It took another eight months of relentless correspondence to convince the Chinese to launch their own follow-up investigation and to interview the people who claimed to have seen David.

The results were crushing. All 12 sources changed their stories. He Shuchang now said he couldn’t be certain that the man he met on the trail was David. At the Yak Bar, Zhang told police that the photos of David looked like a customer she met in August but she wasn’t sure. The same routine played out over and over. David’s parents wondered if the witnesses were intimidated into recanting. In the end, the Americans and the Chinese deemed the evidence “inconclusive,” determining again that David most likely died in Tiger Leaping Gorge.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Women are shown pictures of David in Shangri-La.","align":"left"}%}

Last fall I spent a few days hiking the High Trail through Leaping Tiger Gorge and visiting Shangri-La, hoping to track down some of the same people the Sneddons had talked with on their first visit. Getting information wasn’t any easier. Many of the shops and guesthouses had changed names and owners. But the Yak Bar was still there, though it had undergone several renovations. A woman sitting outside the kitchen told me, through my interpreter, that she opened the business in 2002. When I asked about an American who went missing in 2004, she didn’t reply. When I asked using the name “Sneddon,” her eyes grew wide and she shook her head. “I have no memory,” she said. She asked to us to leave.

In 2011, seven years after David’s disappearance, Nicholas Craft, a Mormon attorney who served his mission in South Korea after David and had read about him on the Sneddons’ website, was interviewing for a job at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea with its executive director, Chuck Downs, a longtime deputy director of the Pentagon’s East Asia office. At the end of his interview, Craft was getting up to leave when he asked, “Have you ever heard of David Sneddon? I always thought that North Korea might have been involved in his disappearance.”

Downs was an expert on North Korean abductions. He edited a book on the topic and had testified before Congress. But he had never heard of David. He leaned forward in his chair. “Sit back down,” he told Craft, “and tell me everything you know.”

As he listened to the saga of David’s disappearance and his parents’ investigation, Downs was amazed at how many of the details fit so well with the familiar patterns of North Korean abductions. For starters, the lack of any evidence pointed to trained professionals. And Downs knew that, as a talented linguist, David would have been a prized catch. Not only did he speak Korean, but he also spoke English without any trace of a regional American accent—a coveted asset in training agents. By midsummer 2004, North Korea had lost one of its few remaining American English teachers, Charles Jenkins, who was released on July 9, one month before David disappeared.

Downs also remembered that the summer of 2004 was particularly tense for U.S.–North Korea relations. That year, on July 21, the House of Representatives had passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which condemned the dictatorship’s human-rights record, promoted assistance to refugees, and established a presidential envoy at the State Department to address those issues. “The U.S. is well advised to stop its rash acts,” the regime warned in response, “and to ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its extremely hostile moves to isolate” North Korea.

North Korea was again outraged a week later when Vietnam allowed a record 468 North Korean refugees to enter South Korea. In the largest mass defection since the end of the Korean War, these North Koreans had all crossed China through Yunnan province to reach Vietnam. As a result, North Korea withdrew its ambassador from Vietnam and canceled scheduled talks with South Korea.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"David Sneddon in China. David was an experienced hiker and Eagle Scout who spent lots of time hiking Wyoming in his childhood, so his parents were skeptical when officials said he'd died crossing a gorge."}%}

And there was one more event, Downs recalled, one that seemed too eerie to be mere coincidence. A few months before Sneddon disappeared, Chinese authorities arrested a high-profile North Korean defector named Kang Byong Sop near the Yunnan-Laos border. Kang, a chemical engineer, was supposedly carrying documents revealing that North Korea was testing chemical weapons on prisoners. In Downs’s mind, Kang’s arrest was clear evidence of cooperation between Chinese and North Korean agents.

Finally, Sneddon was last seen at a Korean restaurant in Shangri-La, which fit North Korea’s pattern of using cafés as part of a global network that uses state-run businesses as espionage centers. These secret hubs, located in 30 to 40 countries but concentrated in China, employ roughly 30,000 workers who send more than $100 million in cash per year to the regime and provide cover for spies. Perhaps the two women operating the Yak Bar in the wild west of China were part of the network or had helped supply information about suspicious visitors in exchange for local protection. Surely, at the very least they knew the value of informing on an American, traveling alone, who spoke Korean and Mandarin.

{%{"quote":"“It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that a nation-state might have picked up your kid from a foreign country,” says Kathleen. “But after the conference, we thought it might be a 75 percent chance.”"}%}

Downs understood that the evidence was all circumstantial, but he knew how North Korea operated. After Craft’s interview, Downs began investigating the case. He’s now convinced that David was abducted. “I believe that David is in North Korea as strongly as you can believe anything,” he told me last summer. “I don’t see any other explanation. I just do not doubt it.”

In April 2011, Downs picked up the phone and called Kathleen Sneddon to share his theory. Kathleen was guarded but allowed Downs to run through the evidence. His plan was not to convince her but to get her and Roy on a plane to Washington, D.C., where he was hosting a conference for Korean and Japanese families of abductees. “Come speak with them,” Downs told her, “and see if you feel you have something in common.”

There is little information about what life is like in North Korea for kidnapped foreigners, but most of what we do know has come from the Japanese who managed to escape or were released. Many are reluctant to speak for fear that the North Korean regime will retaliate against family and friends, but a few have shared their stories. One of the best known cases involves Kaoru Hasuike and his then girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo.

In 1978, the pair wandered away from a crowd of beachgoers in Kashiwazaki City, Japan, onto a quiet stretch of sand where they held hands and watched the sun set. As the waves crashed against the shore, several men approached, and one asked for a cigarette lighter. Before either could answer, one of the men punched Hasuike in the face while another tied his arms together, forced a gag into his mouth, and shoved him into a large sack along with Okudo. The men loaded their captives into an inflatable speedboat and roared off into the night. The next time the couple saw land was two days later, when they arrived in North Korea.

Hasuike was separated from Okudo and taken to a so-called guesthouse in a valley where he was surrounded by barbed-wire fence and armed guards. During 24 years of captivity, Hasuike’s captors forced him to read the teachings of Kim Il Sung and kept him hidden from other abductees, routinely moving him from one house to another. He was put to work as a translator, and he felt torn rewriting Japanese newspaper articles in Korean. After two years, he was reunited with Okudo and allowed to marry. The couple had a son and daughter and decided to lie to their children, telling them they were Korean so that others would not discriminate against them. Hasuike said it was “the longest and most bitter period of my life.”

Hasuike was released in 2002. When he reunited with his family in Japan, he told his brother Toru that he was “a citizen of North Korea” sent to Japan to “normalize” relations between the two countries—a clear indicator of relentless brainwashing. Over time, however, Hasuike adjusted to life outside North Korea and began teaching at a university. Toru saw the effects of the indoctrination begin to fade and concluded that Hasuike had not been permanently altered but was “wearing body armor to protect himself from North Korea.”

There are no officially recognized cases of abducted Americans, but the experience of U.S. Army sergeant Charles Jenkins probably offers the best glimpse of how American—possibly even David—might be treated.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Charles Jenkins (second from right) is escorted by U.S. Army officials upon arrival at Camp Zama, outskirts of Tokyo, on November 27, 2004.","align":"right"}%}

In 1965, Jenkins, then 24, with a distinct North Carolina drawl, was stationed at an outpost along the edge of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. On a cold January evening, after guzzling nearly a dozen beers, he set off as though going on his nightly patrol duty. Terrified of being sent to Vietnam, Jenkins told his supervisor that he was going to check out a strange noise and crossed into North Korea. His plan, poorly thought out, was to get captured in hopes of being sent to the Soviet Union, North Korea’s Cold War ally, and then eventually shipped back to the United States. “I did not understand,” Jenkins later said, that “once someone goes there, they almost never, ever get out.”

Jenkins was blindfolded and taken to a small house outside Pyongyang, where North Korean soldiers interrogated him for ten days. Afterward, Jenkins was taken to another house and forced to live in a tiny bedroom with three other American soldiers who had defected: Larry Abshier, Jerry Parrish, and James Dresnok. A six-foot wall surrounded the house, and outside a guard kept watch from a crow’s nest on top of a telephone pole. Jenkins wrote in his memoir, “I suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead.”

Jenkins eventually began teaching English to North Korean soldiers. For many years, his lectures were recorded for others. He was forced to appear in anti-American propaganda films and television shows. All captive foreigners endured daily reeducation and indoctrination classes. Prisoners also engaged in a mind-control exercise that required them to admit their faults and pledge their allegiance to the supreme leader.

Arranged marriages were also part of prisoner life. Late at night on June 30, 1980, Jenkins heard a knock on his door. When he opened it, he saw a 21-year-old woman in a white blouse, a white skirt, and white high heels. “I had never seen anybody so beautiful,” Jenkins said of meeting Hitomi Soga, a Japanese abductee who would become his wife. “In those grubby old surroundings, it was like she was from a dream or an entirely different planet.” The two bonded over their hatred for North Korea and eventually had two daughters. In 2002, Soga was one of the five Japanese prisoners allowed to return home after Kim Jong Il admitted to their abductions. Back in Japan, Soga’s stories of her American husband and her children still in North Korea were taken up by the media, and in 2004 North Korea released Jenkins and their two daughters. Today the couple lives a quiet life in a remote village in Japan.

Through the years, Roy and Kathleen Sneddon ran through every conceivable explanation for David’s disappearance, but nothing ever gave them a sense of finality. They ruled out drowning after finding evidence that he hiked safely across the gorge. Murder? Chinese authorities and locals swore that violent crime was virtually nonexistent in the region. Suicide? Nothing pointed to depression. In fact, David was excited about his senior year at BYU and had already paid for student housing with his own savings.

In May 2011, when the Sneddons returned home from meeting with Downs and the families of abduction victims, they finally had an explanation that seemed plausible—even if it also sounded patently absurd. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that a nation-state might have picked up your kid from a foreign country,” says Kathleen. “But after the conference, we thought it might be a 75 percent chance. The North Korea thing was just a puzzle piece that seemed to fit.”

More pieces soon followed. In winter 2011, an organizer of unofficial meetings between the U.S. and North Korea asked a North Korean diplomat about David. “What was remarkable to me, having dealt with North Korean officials for years and expecting a reaction of outrage,” said the organizer, who is speaking out for the first time on the condition of anonymity, “was the total lack of surprise at the intimation that something of this kind might have occurred at the behest of authorities. He asked me to spell [David’s] name, and the fact that he was willing to note the name indicated to me that he was not excluding the possibility that this might have happened.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Roy Sneddon with He Shuchang (middle) and guide Sean (right). Roy and Sean ran into He Shuchang while hiking, and couldn't believe their luck when he recognized a photo of David.","align":"left"}%}

The following year, in May 2012, the Tokyo nonprofit National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea dropped a bombshell. One of the organization’s most reliable sources, a North Korean defector who had provided flawless intelligence to NARKN for years, had obtained Chinese security documents indicating that in August 2004, a 23- or 24-year-old American studying at a Chinese university was arrested in Yunnan province on charges of helping illegal residents. According to the documents, authorities had released the American in September, and he’d ended up in the hands of five North Korean secret agents who were in the area searching for defectors. NARKN was certain it had to be David.

“We have much confidence in our source and have no reason to doubt this information,” says NARKN vice chairman Yoichi Shimada, speaking publicly for the first time during an interview last fall. Shimada believes that corrupt officers sold information about David’s release to North Korean agents.

The following month, the Sneddon family received yet another lead from a man in South Korea with close ties to the North Korean defector community. (His identity cannot be revealed for his safety.) The man told the Sneddons that an American in his early thirties who matched David’s description had been spotted teaching English outside Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. This information has not been corroborated, and if David is indeed in North Korea, Downs says, “he would be in a highly controlled environment, and most North Koreans would not ever know he was there,” making verification difficult.

While NARKN’s information appears genuine, some skeptics question the organization’s credibility and accuse it of using David’s case to raise the profile of its own political agenda. If an American abduction could be confirmed, the issue would undoubtedly receive a huge publicity boost. The Sneddons, however, don’t seem to care about NARKN’s motives. “They may be using us,” says Kathleen, “but we’re also using them. It doesn’t mean they’re lying.”

Last May, I sat next to David’s brother, Michael, in the third row of an auditorium at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., for a symposium on North Korean abductions. Michael flew in from Germany, where he now lives with his family. Waiting for the event to begin, Michael tapped his finger on his knee and trained his eyes on the two people in the room who might help find David: Keiji Furuya, Japan’s cabinet minister in charge of the abduction issue, and U.S. ambassador Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues.

At intermission I approached Furuya, who told me that he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believe that NARKN’s information is entirely credible. “It is most probable that David Sneddon is still residing in North Korea,” he said. “But I do not think that the United States is working fast enough to collect evidence.” And since David is an American, he lamented, Japan can’t get involved.

Ambassador King stated in his symposium remarks that the United States’ “commitment to this issue could not be stronger.” But in reality, officials want nothing to do with David’s case. Since David’s disappearance, Roy and Kathleen have written 55 letters to various members of the State Department, including Hillary Clinton during her time as the department’s secretary. Most went unanswered, but the replies that did come were infuriating. Under the Privacy Act, the U.S. government will not release any information about David without David’s written consent. To Roy and Kathleen, it is the mother of all catch-22’s.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"A Missing poster for David Sneddon, posted on a power pole on Leaping Tiger Gorge trail.","align":"right"}%}

In November 2012, a friend of the Sneddon family filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department for all records related to David. Though the request turned up 14 documents, the government refused to release 13, citing concern for privacy and the “interest of national defense or foreign relations.” The one document they did release simply stated that China had not found any trace of David.

For the Sneddons, these concerns are infuriating. Why would the United States be reluctant to search for one of its own citizens? But to anyone familiar with the delicacy of high-level diplomatic relations, the government’s position on the issue is understandable. Asking too many accusatory questions about David could potentially threaten America’s vital relations with China. If David was in fact detained in China, it would mean that China broke its treaty obligation to inform the U.S. within four days. Pressing the issue with North Korea, meanwhile, would jeopardize possible nuclear negotiations. “It’s simply more convenient for the United States if David is dead,” Michael Sneddon says.

As of now, nearly a decade after David vanished, the Sneddons are still asking the same questions, still hoping for that one additional shred of evidence to compel the powers that be to intervene.

David’s parents’ home in Logan remains a shrine to their missing son. Nearly every surface, from the living-room walls to the refrigerator, is dotted with pictures of David: in his crib as a baby, playing ice hockey, traveling in China.

“I don’t want to forget him,” Kathleen says. “How would I feel if he came through the door and said, ‘Mom, you don’t have any pictures of me’? I’d want to scream, ‘No! I kept you in my heart and my mind and my prayers, and you were always there.’ I can’t take the chance that he’d think we forgot him. People say we’re crazy, but that’s their business.”

Kathleen envisions David as a 34-year-old man, married with children. If he is teaching English in North Korea, she imagines that he is enjoying himself and making the best of his new life behind the iron veil.

The day before David left for China, Kathleen talked with her son deep into the night. The following morning, she was so busy helping him finish packing that his departure seems like a blur. She knows she waved goodbye as she stood on the front porch watching David pull out of the driveway, but she can’t remember giving him a hug or saying “I love you.” “I just have to trust that I did.”  

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Post-Communist Paradise in Albania

The Osum River flows out of Albania’s Korcha highlands and hooks north to sluice through a 16-mile-long gorge called the Osum Canyon, one of Europe’s most spectacular whitewater runs. A steady rain has riled the river into a Class III fury that’s now hurtling us through a particularly beautiful section. Mineral-stained walls rise up on either side like the arms of a 300-foot-high slingshot. Waterfalls blast over the cliffs in broad, silvery horsetails. There isn’t a road in sight, just a few brandywine orchards and the occasional forgotten machine-gun nest.

It’s a chilly, slightly wet May morning, and I’m sitting in a raft full of Albanian guys. They’re all down from Tirana, the capital, for their first whitewater trip, a daylong jaunt operated by Outdoor Albania, one of the few outfitters trying to sell the notion that this former Stalinist state can become an adventure hub. Our strokes are mismatched, and we keep clanging our paddles, but we’re having a blast digging through holes and bouncing over wave trains. Then the river flattens and we spin lazily in the current.

“Where you from?” asks the guy in front, a muscular security guard named Endri Xhafka.

“Oregon,” I say. “USA.”

“Albanians love USA!” interjects a bigger guy beside him, an aspiring raft guide named Alban Vila.

“Do Americans know Albania?” Xhafka asks.

“We are in Wag the Dog!” Vila adds.

“And Taken,” Xhafka says.

The Simpsons, too,” I offer. I’m about to mention the Belushi brothers, whose Albanian father grew up in the Korcha highlands, but just then our lead guide, Gent Mati, a lean 37-year-old with meaty forearms, interrupts us.

Para!” he shouts. It means “forward,” but I take it to mean “dig like hell.” “Paraparapara!”

We para poorly and drift portside into a dogleg wall. In a flash, we’re pinned between the canyon and the current.

“High side! High side!” Mati shouts. We all attempt to scramble up the raft’s tipping edge, but the river is too strong. Within seconds the boat flips onto its side and I’m cartwheeling into the water along with everyone else. Icy rivulets rake through my wetsuit. I pop up in a blast of adrenaline. One of our guys has gone missing.

{%{"image":"","size":"large","caption":"Overboard in the Osum."}%}

“Andi! Andi!” people shout in a panic.

Then, chaos: the second boat in our three-raft flotilla hits the wall and turtles in the exact same spot. The Osum becomes a burst of blue paddles and flushed heads in bright orange helmets. A drybag breaks loose and floats by with $7,000 in camera gear inside. I backstroke toward the one upright raft, where Zafir Shumanov, a 33-year-old guide from Macedonia, hauls me in. We’re safely within an eddy, but with ten people now in the one upright raft, the extra weight threatens to push us back into the current. “We are too heavy!” Shumanov yells, but there’s nowhere else to go. Everyone else is screaming, too.

“Andi! Andi!”

For a few awful moments, nobody answers that call.

Suddenly, Andi Qyqja, a 26-year-old former professional soccer goalie, pops up from an undercut wall.

“Holy shit!” I stammer when he gets close. “Are you OK?”

“Oof,” he says, eyes rolling in their sockets. He’s thrashed but alive and well, which, come to think of it, is a lot like Albania itself.

Positioned between Greece and the shards of Yugoslavia on the Adriatic Sea, Albania is slowly recovering from some very rough decades. For much of the 20th century, the nation, which is predominantly Muslim, wheezed under the jackboots of a Marxist dictator named Enver Hoxha, who forged Albania into one of history’s most extreme Communist states. During his 40-year rule, following World War II, Hoxha (pronounced ho-jah) grew so severe in his ideology that he cut his country off from the rest of the world. No one could enter or leave. To deter both invasions and revolts, Hoxha built some 700,000 machine-gun nests around a nation smaller than Maryland. Wearing shorts in town could get you questioned for being bourgeois.


Hoxha died in 1985, Communism collapsed, and by 1992 a fledgling democracy took root as a noisy world of Pepsi, Fiats, and polyester tracksuits rushed in. Hope sprung briefly as people accumulated new wealth, but Albania’s experiment with capitalism soon went horrifically awry. New private Albanian investment companies started promising outrageous interest rates on deposits—triple your money in three months!—and roughly two-thirds of the population dumped upwards of $1.2 billion into what amounted to pyramid schemes. In January 1997, two of the bigger ones collapsed, and riots broke out all over the country when Albanians realized how badly they’d been duped. The economy ground to a near halt, inflation soared to 40 percent, and production slowed to a trickle. Police and soldiers deserted their posts, mobs stormed armories, and a million weapons ended up on the streets. The president, Sali Berisha, resigned. More than 2,000 people died in the anarchy before the UN dispatched international troops to restore order.

Albania is a different place these days. More than a billion dollars in foreign aid has helped to rebuild institutions, train the workforce, and improve infrastructure. A new Socialist government rode that renaissance wave into office last summer; the prime minister, an artist named Edi Rama, has vowed to find ways to boost Albania’s prospects. Tourism will certainly be one of the tools as the country looks to mimic the success of neighbors like Montenegro and Croatia. About 2.7 million foreign visitors came to Albania in 2012, nearly three times as many as in 2007.

“All these countries in southeastern Europe have enormous potential,” said Kirsi Hyvaerinen, a Finnish consultant who worked with tourism groups to create a new 120-mile-long trail, the Peaks of the Balkans, that links Montenegro with Kosovo and Albania. “Albania is where things get really interesting. If there is a place where you can experience a stream of hundreds of years all at once—the ancient, the traditional, the young, the modern—it’s here.”

Actually, that’s an understatement. The place is made for adventure. You can hike under the 9,000-foot spires of the Bjeshket e Namuna, a mountain range with Yosemite-style big walls. There are 13 national parks, 300 natural monuments, and dozens of antiquity sites like Kruja, Apollonia, and Butrint, a fourth-century port city and Unesco World Heritage site. The coast is a filigree of pale blue bays and amber cliffs with serpentine lanes for cycling. You can sea-kayak to etchings left by Roman sailors or raft through canyons like the Osum. Imagine a country of three million liberal, smoking, dancing, drinking, gregarious Muslims who like Americans—a lot.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Ruins of Apollonia, one of dozens of antiquity sits in Albania."}%}

I’ve come here three times in the past eight months because I’m kind of obsessed. On my first trip, I trekked through the mountainous north of Theth National Park and then went south to the Drino Valley to hike in the footsteps of Lord Byron, who traveled here in 1809. I meandered through forgotten ruins, slept in stone guesthouses, and helped a friendly old widow pick pomegranates. I came away a believer. For my money, Albania is the most gorgeous, overlooked, and fascinating place in Europe, a country where the pressure of tourism has yet to can its soul. (I confess to being maybe overly enthusiastic; I’ve even appeared on an Albanian talk show to tout the country’s potential.) This time, I wanted to play in the water and organized a ten-day trip along the southern coast and then inland toward the Vjosa and Osum drainages with Mati, an avid paddler and the owner of Outdoor Albania.

A few days before our rafting adventure, we met in Tirana, an Atlanta-size city with bright yellow buildings, leafy boulevards, and a street named after George W. Bush. Young working professionals hustled past slick restaurants wearing designer shoes that clicked on the pavement, exuding confidence and promise. Still, nearly everyone I talked to, young and old alike, would rather be in Italy, Greece, or New York to find better schools, more work, and doctors who don’t solicit bribes. One owner of a successful Tirana hotel, Fatmir Shabani, told me, “If I could, I wouldn’t leave tomorrow. I’d leave today.”

A light rain fell as I headed to an outdoor café where Mati waited under a large canvas umbrella. His dog, Vicky, sat quietly beneath the table. I told Mati about my previous Albanian adventures and why I was back so soon. He laughed.

“You have a romantic view of Albania, don’t you?” he said. “You know, some German students tried to come up with an adventure-tourism slogan for us. One of them was ‘Albania: where the only dictators left are guides.’ ”

With that, we went to shoo some chickens out of his sea kayaks.

From Tirana, we rolled in Mati’s Land Cruiser about 150 miles south through the Ceraunian Mountains to a coastal village called Qeparo. The humped peaks of Corfu lingered in the distance; white limestone cliffs braced against the sea. Mati eased the kayaks into the water, and we went for a leisurely paddle over spiny black urchins and past an entrance to one of Hoxha’s secret submarine bases. Mati’s father, Ilir, spent the Cold War working on those subs.

“When he got out of the military, he was really the first to start bringing adventure tourists to Albania,” Mati said. “They’d hike and ride bikes all along this coast.”

Water gave Mati purpose. In 1994, at 17, he met some Italian kayakers who taught him how to paddle. He chased whitewater down Andean creeks and African rivers and studied law and public policy in Poland and Brussels, but returned home to Albania where, in 2003, he met a tall Dutch woman named Laura. The couple had two kids and purchased a big apartment in Tirana. Together they started Outdoor Albania to take people into the country’s once forbidden pockets.

“Originally, I wanted to bring Albania closer to the European Union,” Mati said. “Now it’s the opposite. I want to bring the world to Albania and change the perceptions of my country through tourism.”

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Gent Mati, the author's 37-year-old lead guide."}%}

We paddled back to our hotel in Qeparo, a ten-room, whitewashed inn called Riviera, where we sat on a beachfront patio. As we sipped our beers, some skinny beach cats wandered up, and we fed them bites of our sardines. A chain-smoking, one-eyed, one-armed fisherman named Foro Leka ran the place. According to local rumor, he lost his arm and eye years ago in a dynamite accident. He poured us shots of free homemade brandy and thanked us repeatedly for visiting but kept his distance.

The next day, we drove south toward the beaches of Saranda, starting not far from where Roman warships landed during Caesar’s Civil War, more than 2,000 years ago. The landing site was gorgeous—pale sand against the shiny Ionian Sea—but Saranda was not. Noisy beachside discos and poorly planned condos had consumed the views; trash heaps choked the ravines. We headed a few miles east to the municipality of Mesopotam and stopped at a park with a sinkhole that gurgled with the birth of a pure blue river. The guard slipped our entrance-fee money into his pocket, where, Mati assured me, it would stay.

So there are warts. Unscrupulous officials pave the roads of districts that vote for them and leave the others to rot. Organized crime, pollution, and corruption are serious threats. And yet there’s so much beauty: tropical green water, friendly madder-roofed villages, valleys plucked from the Alps. If Albanians could eat the views, they’d all weigh 300 pounds.

Early that evening, we pushed on to Permet, a town of about 12,000 people near the Greek border, on the edge of Fir of Hotova National Park. We grabbed rooms at a rustic stone inn called Coli’s and headed out for a 20-minute mountain-bike ride to some hot springs under an old Ottoman bridge. We could almost smell the sulphur when the rain hit hard and sent us scrambling for shelter.

“All this water will actually be great for the Osum,” Mati beamed.

He's right. It's certainly the most dramatic rafting day trip I’ve ever done. Once Andi emerges from the water, we right the upset boats and collect the flotsam. I return to my own raft, and we float another five miles with ease. We swim under waterfalls and marvel at the canyon, which collapses so tightly around us at one point that it becomes exactly the width of our raft.

We make it to the take-out in Chorovoda, a small town where the canyon ends, just as the rain really hits. While the group from Tirana settles the bill with Mati, I grab a seat at a café next to Zafir Shumanov, the Macedonian expat, who moved here to start a music label and date Mati’s sister, Besa. That romance didn’t end well, but Shumanov found another reason to stay: fish. He tells me he’s spent six years—his entire time in Albania—combing the country for the best places to catch Ohrid trout, carp, and perch. “It’s a sickness,” he says.

{%{"image":"","size":"medium","caption":"Carp fishing near the Skanderbeg Mountains."}%}

Eager to catch a little of this sickness, I make a plan to go fishing with him near Tirana a few days later. On my last full day in Albania, Shumanov plucks me from the capital’s predawn light, and we rush out of the city in his Fiat, spinning rods rattling in the back. We slip past lifeless apartments and a lone horse grazing in a roundabout. Thin strips of fog cling to the scalloped parapets of the Skanderbeg Mountains to the northeast. Forty-five minutes later, Shumanov opens a gate off a winding road, and before us lies Shkopet Lake.

“Blue! Blue! Blue!” he says, eyes wild behind scraggly bangs. “And full of very big craps!”

“Craps?” I ask.

“Carps,” he says. “In Macedonian you say krap. Forgive me my English.”

Shumanov gets to work balancing four rods on Y-shaped holders and cracks a can of corn for bait. It’s not exactly Norman Maclean material, but what a fine spot this is. Hiking trails lead toward a distant summit, and sheep graze under lime trees on the banks. A month after I leave, Shumanov turns this plot into a fishing retreat with a restaurant serving savory carp soup. As we sit on the shore, waiting, it occurs to me that patience and slow, smart development may be the ticket for this place. That’s a hard thing to ask of a society that’s been caged up for decades. Today the average worker earns about $350 a month. Yet the alternatives are clear. The last thing Albania needs is to dam its rivers or entomb another view in concrete.

Hours go by at the lake and no one gets the kraps. Instead we drink more brandy and try to catch one of the sheep with Shumanov’s fishing net, which is really hard to do. I’m about to give up and go hiking when a rod suddenly springs to life. Shumanov leaps from his seat.

“It is starting!” he says, and that’s enough to give a man hope.

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