Tokyo Report

What One North Korean Abduction Might Mean for US-Japan Relations

If a U.S. citizen is found to have been abducted by North Korea, it could highlight an issue that has long bedeviled Japan.

What One North Korean Abduction Might Mean for US-Japan Relations
Credit: North Korean soldier image via Astrelok /

Even as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Washington D.C. last week, meeting with U.S. officials to finalize agreement on a United Nations resolution responding to North Korea’s nuclear test, another government official made the trek across the Pacific for a conversation about North Korea. However, Keiji Furuya, the former Japanese minister in charge of the North Korean abduction issue, was in the U.S. capital not to discuss North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but to meet with members of Congress who suspect that an American citizen might have been abducted by North Korea more than a decade ago.

“When it comes to abduction issue, I think American citizens would think that it’s happening in Asia, far away from the United States,” Furuya told The Diplomat. “However, if it turned out that an American citizen was abducted by North Korea, and it’s recognized by the American government, people’s awareness is going to drastically change.”

David Sneddon, then 24 years old, disappeared in China’s Yunnan Province on August 14, 2004. The official explanation for his disappearance, offered by the Chinese government after an investigation, was that he fell into the Jinsha River and drowned while hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. Sneddon’s family, however, rejected this explanation, noting on a website dedicated to finding Sneddon that “no evidence has ever turned up to support this theory.” In fact, the family says they were able to locate witnesses who saw Sneddon after he had completed the hike.

Meanwhile, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Abducted by North Korea says sources in China have indicated that Sneddon may have been detained and turned over to North Korean security agents on suspicion of helping North Korean refugees. There is also a theory that Sneddon, who was fluent in Korean, was targeted for abduction because of his language skills.

The decade-old case received a boost when Senator Mike Lee and Representative Chris Stewart* sponsored concurrent resolutions in the Senate and House expressing concern over Sneddon’s disappearance. The resolution notes that “investigative reporters and non-government organizations… have repeatedly raised the possibility that the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was involved in David’s disappearance.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

To that end, the resolution would order the State Department and U.S. intelligence community “to jointly continue investigations and to consider all plausible explanations for David’s disappearance, including the possibility of abduction by the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The resolution would also direct the State Department and intelligence agencies to coordinate their investigation with China, Japan, and South Korea, as well as “foreign governments known to have diplomatic influence” in North Korea.

Gabrielle Price, a U.S. State Department Spokesperson in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told The Diplomat that “the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu have been in regular, ongoing contact with local authorities since David Sneddon was reported missing in China in August 2004.”

“We cannot speculate on the reasons for the disappearance,” Price said via email. “However, we have seen no verifiable evidence to indicate that Mr. Sneddon was abducted by North Korean officials.”

Furuya sees a possible parallel between the evolution of Sneddon’s case and the history of Japan’s response to abductions. “In Japan, the Japanese government at first was very reluctant about officially recognizing the abduction cases,” he explains. “On the other hand, the Japanese Diet … put pressure on the Japanese government, and as a result the Japanese government officially recognized the abduction cases.”

Should a similar pattern unfold in the United States, Furuya expects a change in the U.S. approach to the abduction issue. If an American citizen was abducted, it’s “almost an act of terrorism,” he says. Furuya predicts that a stronger U.S. response would also led to stronger cooperation between Japan and the United States on the abduction issue. “Therefore it is very important that this resolution be adopted as soon as possible,” he told The Diplomat. The resolution is currently in committee.

The Japanese government recognizes 17 of its citizens as having been abducted by North Korea. Of those, Pyongyang has admitted to kidnapping 13. Five Japanese citizens, all kidnapped in 1978, were returned to Japan in 2002; North Korea claimed the other eight abductees had died. The Japanese government remains unconvinced, and continues to push for the return of the remaining abductees.

Since 2002, however, there’s been little progress on the remaining cases. In 2014, there was some hope for a breakthrough, as Japan agreed to ease its sanctions on North Korea in exchange for a renewed investigation into the fates of its citizens. But Pyongyang never produced any results from its supposed investigation. Tokyo reintroduced the sanctions (along with additional measures) this February, in response to North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch. North Korea, in turn, announced that it had disbanded the investigatory committee supposed to look in to the abductions.

That result wasn’t surprising, according to Furuya. “We are aware that this is North Korea’s pattern, and it was pretty much expected,” he said. He added that concern over North Korea using the abduction issue to retaliate for Japanese sanctions “is not going to impact Japan’s efforts going forward.”

In fact, Furuya believes pressure is the most successful route to changing North Korea’s behavior, and perhaps solving the abduction issue once and for all. “There were cases in the past for the United States government and the Japanese government to take an appeasement policy to try to solve these issues vis-à-vis North Korea,” Furuya explained. He concludes that “it didn’t work well.”

Instead, he said that “there has been a pattern that when we put pressure on North Korea, North Korea moved little by little… If you really put pressure effectively, North Korea at least shows an attitude to compromise.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The key to effectively pressuring North Korea is coordination among the various parties – including Japan, the United States, South Korea, and China. To Furuya, the Sneddon case represents a chance to take U.S.-Japan cooperation over North Korea to a new level: “The United States and Japan are allies; we’re coordinated very closely, but we can also coordinate closely on the abduction issue,” he said.

*Congressman Stewart’s name corrected.