For 12 years, ever since their son, David, disappeared after hiking in China, Kathleen and Roy Sneddon always believed that he had been kidnapped and was alive. Now it appears that they were right.
This week, the Sneddons, who live in Providence, Utah, learned through Yahoo Japan that David, a 24-year-old Brigham Young University student at the time he went missing, is believed to be in North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang, where he now has a wife and two children and teaches English – including work as a tutor for the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“Basically, this isn’t a surprise – this is what we’ve suspected all along,” Kathleen Sneddon, 80, tells PEOPLE. “But we’re more hopeful now of things moving forward and getting him home.”
“We’ve solved the mystery,” adds David’s father, Roy Sneddon, also 80. “Now, let’s work on getting him out.”
The Sneddons, who have launched a website to help find David are hoping that the U.S. State Department will now launch an investigation into their son’s disappearance.
In February, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), introduced a resolution in Congress, encouraging the intelligence community and the State Department to look into North Korea’s possible involvement in David’s disappearance, but it has not yet been voted on.
“We cannot speculate on the reasons for (David’s) disappearance,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby tells PEOPLE. “However, we have seen no verifiable evidence to indicate that Mr. Sneddon was abducted by North Korean officials. 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, and we will continue to closely monitor the matter and raise it with Chinese authorities.”
David, a former missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in South Korea who hoped to earn a degree in international law, had been in Beijing for two months studying Chinese, when he disappeared on Aug. 10, 2004, after a hike through the rugged Tiger Leaping Gorge in the Yunnan Province.
When his parents didn’t hear from him for several days via email, they contacted authorities, who sent out 200 searchers and concluded that David had likely fallen into the gorge and died.
Two weeks later, Roy Sneddon and two of his other sons (David is the 10th of 11 children) flew to China to conduct their own search and learned that the Chinese government suspected that David had been involved in smuggling people out of North Korea.
“We think that they suspected him of complicity with South Koreans working with the underground railroad to move North Koreans through China to safe houses,” Roy tells PEOPLE. “One of David’s former missionary companions had stayed with him for several days, and he’d been asked to leave China because he was writing a paper about North Koreans who had fled their country.”
Tracing David’s footsteps, Roy also learned that his son had been spotted after completing his hike, “so we know that he didn’t die falling into the gorge.”
While reports that their son, now 36, is teaching English and has a wife and two children cannot be confirmed, Kathleen says the scenario is believable.
“We have talked to many Japanese people who have worked on abduction issues with North Korea,” she tells PEOPLE, “and it isn’t a choice for those who are kidnapped. They are forced to marry because it’s another way to keep them tied to North Korea. When they are responsible for a family, they are less likely to try and flee.”
If the story about her son’s new life is true, “then we have two more grandchildren and I hope I have the opportunity to see them,” she adds.
“We think about David and the people of North Korea who are held without freedoms, each and every day. Faith is what has helped us keep going. If I could send a message to David right now, it would be, ‘We love you. We haven’t forgotten you. You’re always in our hearts and prayers and we’re doing everything possible to bring you home.’ “