The family of a Thai woman believed to have been kidnapped by North Korea 37 years ago have made an emotional appeal for her return.
Anocha Panchoy went missing in Macao, where she was working as a masseuse, in 1978. Her family had given up hope of ever finding her until, 10 years ago, American defector Charles Robert Jenkins revealed that he had known her while living in Pyongyang.
According to Jenkins, she was kidnapped so she could teach Thai language and culture to North Korean spies. Analysts say it is possible that hundreds of other people — mostly South Korean and Japanese — have been kidnapped by the repressive, isolated ‘hermit kingdom’ for similar reasons.
Now, hopeful that she is still alive, Anocha’s family members have renewed their appeal for her release following the death of her beloved brother Sukham from cancer on May 1.
His dying wish was that Anocha be brought home, dead or alive, his son Banjong told The Diplomat at the family’s house in the village of Sankamphaeng, near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
“Before my father died, when he was sick, he was very sad and missed his sister,” 46-year-old Banjong said through an interpreter. “Five days before he died, he called me and told me to take care of my mother, the family, and especially Anocha — to follow up the case and do whatever I could to bring her home.”
Anocha was born in 1955, and her mother died when she was young. After school, she worked in Chiang Mai and then in a beauty and massage parlor in Bangkok before moving to Macao.
Family photos from the mid-70s show a pretty young woman with a shy smile, dressed in the colorful fashions of the time. Banjong was only a child when his aunt disappeared, but he remembers her as a friendly and generous woman.
“When she worked in Bangkok, she came home every three or four months,” he said. “She was lovely and very goodhearted. When she came, she brought food, snacks and sweets for everyone.”
The money she sent back also paid for the family’s home, a simple wooden house on stilts in a rural neighborhood not far from the city.
It was the prospect of earning better money, and perhaps a sense of adventure, that prompted Anocha to take the job in Macau. The family was heartbroken when she disappeared and failed to return. They believed she was dead but never reported her missing, hoping against hope that she may still be alive somewhere.
Fragments of information about Anocha’s fate have emerged — nearly all of it from Jenkins, who lived in North Korea for nearly 40 years after deserting his U.S. army unit and crossing the demilitarized zone in 1965.
Jenkins was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004, and now lives in Japan with his Japanese wife, who married him after being abducted by the North. His book The Reluctant Communist discusses, among other things, their life in Pyongyang and their friendship with Anocha.
According to his account, Anocha had agreed to take a man claiming to be a Japanese tour guide on a boat tour when she was kidnapped on the morning of May 21, 1978. At a nearby beach, she was forced onto a boat by North Korean agents and taken to the secretive state then ruled by Kim Il-sung.
Not long afterwards, she married another American defector, Larry Allen Abshier, who died in 1983. In 1989 she married again, to an East German businessman working for the government. She apparently told Jenkins that she wanted to return to Thailand and be with her family.
Pyongyang denies abducting Anocha, but has admitted kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. It allowed five of them to return in 2002, claiming the rest had died.
Tokyo officially acknowledges 17 victims, but the Japanese police say they cannot rule out North Korean involvement in more than 800 missing persons cases. Around 500 South Koreans are thought to have been abducted, and there are unconfirmed reports that some Europeans have also been kidnapped by the North.
Anocha’s father died in 2005, without knowing what had happened to his daughter. Three months later, on November 1, the family watched a television news report about Jenkins. The report mentioned a Thai woman who had been kidnapped by North Korean agents, and showed a photo of a woman sitting on a beach with Jenkins and others. The family knew straight away that it was Anocha, says Banjong. His father was sure that the woman in the photo was his long-lost sister.
Excited and exhilarated, the family went to the TV station’s offices in Chiang Mai the next day to ask for more information. Soon, local and international journalists were flocking to their home, with cars parked outside to the end of the village.
For Banjong, who makes a living selling second-hand cars and spare parts, life changed dramatically as he began lobbying for the release of Anocha and other abductees. He began traveling to seminars abroad, meeting UN officials and high-ranking diplomats and politicians, including former South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak.
At first, he says, he was confused and worried as he hadn’t traveled much before. But he was befriended by Tomoharu Ebihara, a Japanese academic then teaching at Chiang Mai’s Phayap University, who helped him and sometimes traveled with him.
Banjong has now been to Japan 10 times (including once with his father), South Korea three times, and Switzerland once, he said. In December this year, he is due to visit Washington D.C. to lobby US officials and politicians.
Tomoharu is now the director of the Chiang Mai branch of the Association for the Rescue of North Korea Abductees. He believes Anocha is still alive and that there is a good chance she will one day be reunited with her family, pointing out that it is in North Korea’s interests to keep the abductees alive. He hopes international sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang will force it to change its policy and release them in the near future.
Banjong had high hopes that things would improve when Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un succeeded him after his death in 2011, but now believes the younger Kim is “worse than his father.” Indeed, according to reports coming out of Pyongyang, the young dictator is a cruel and capricious ruler.
The latest possible news Banjong has had of his aunt came from a South Korean non-governmental organization late last year. It said it had been told that she was still alive and living in a suburb of Pyongyang, with around 20 other abductees living nearby, although this has not been confirmed.
Since last year’s military coup, Thailand’s ruling junta has strengthened ties with North Korea, although Pyongyang continues to publicly deny any knowledge of the case. The Diplomat called the North Korean embassy in Bangkok twice, and both times a man at the other end hung up abruptly when asked about it. “We don’t have such a case,” one said.
Banjong is in regular contact with a Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs official about the case, and praises him for the help he has provided. Like Tomoharu, he is hopeful that one day he will meet his aunt again.
“She is still a family member,” he said, adding that she is also still officially listed as a resident of the house her remittances from Bangkok paid for.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has also taken a close interest in the case and hopes there will be a happy ending for the Panjoy family.
“North Korea has a great deal to answer for to Anocha Panjoy, to her family who have been demanding her return all these years, and to the Thai government and people to whom North Korean officials have repeatedly lied over the years,” he said.
“It’s quite clear from both testimonies and photographic evidence that North Korean officials blatantly committed a criminal act by kidnapping Anocha and holding her against her will in Pyongyang for all these years.
“Thailand, which enjoys good relations with Pyongyang, must make it clear to North Korea that it needs to immediately reveal where Anocha is and provide all the details surrounding her abduction. Kim Jong-un and his government need to end their game of bogus denials, immediately release Anocha, and let her return to her family. Time is running short, as we saw with Anocha’s brother recently passing away — so there is no more time for excuses or denials.”
Mark Fenn is a British journalist based in Thailand.