11 July 2024

Another year is ending with fading hope of a Thai family in Chiang Mai in getting back its daughter abducted by North Korea 42 years ago.

Anocha Panchoi, a native of San Kamphaeng district of Chiang Mai, was 23 when she disappeared in 1978. She was working in Macau and was on her way to having a haircut when she was abducted.

Anocha’s fate was once again highlighted in a news report by NHK of Japan last week following a memorial service by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for the father of one of the Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korea. It noted that according to a UN report, Japan is just one of eleven countries that were targeted by the North’s abduction activity.

Anocha’s family had to wait more than 25 years for any sign that she was still alive. It came in 2005, when US deserter Charles Robert Jenkins, husband of former abductee Soga Hitomi, testified that he knew a female Thai abductee living in Pyongyang. He produced a photo showing what was believed to be Anocha behind his family on a beach.

Leading a campaign to get Anocha back was her nephew Banjong and his father.  NHK said the top official in their district cross-referenced the information provided by Jenkins with documents about Anocha at the town office and confirmed that the woman in the photo was indeed Anocha.

But the campaign hasn’t ignited public interest in the way similar ones have in Japan.  NHK quoted Warintorn Wuwongse, a former professor at Thammasat University who has long supported Banjong’s efforts, as saying that one reason is that “people frequently go missing or disappear in Thailand. So, the level of interest is low, particularly when it comes to a story of a woman working overseas.”

And she said there may also be an economic motive for the authorities to ignore the issue. North Korea used to be a major buyer of Thai rice. “Bangkok didn’t want to risk damaging relations with Pyongyang for one abductee,” Warintorn was quoted as saying.

According to NHK, former North Korean agents have testified that the abductions were motivated by the looming leadership change at the time. They say the country’s founder, Kim Il Song, named his son Kim Jong Il as a successor in 1974. He started assigning him important jobs so he could cut his leadership teeth.

It said Professor Hiraiwa Shunji at Nanzan University, an expert on Korean issues, speculated that Kim Jong Il started taking advantage of the abduction program as a way to train his operatives.

“North Korean agents are presumably active across the world, including in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East,” he said. “So, the regime probably wanted to abduct people from each region to enhance information-gathering capacity.”

One of the Panchoi family’s biggest supporters is a Japanese researcher who has lived in Thailand for over 20 years. Ebihara Tomoharu, a former lecturer at a university in Chiang Mai, learned of Anocha’s story in 2005 and decided to help.

Ebihara keeps the family up-to-date about the latest information of the abduction issue through similar campaigns in Japan, and supports their efforts to get the Thai government and parliament involved. He also went with Banjong when he visited Japan to call for support in 2019.

In 2006 and 2007, Ebihara helped set up meetings between Banjong and the Thai foreign minister. The government initially responded by trying to engage North Korea on the issue, calling for the establishment of a joint working group to search for the missing. But their efforts were met with silence from Pyongyang.

Banjong’s father died five years ago, without ever seeing his sister again. But the family struggle goes on, and Banjong has now enlisted his 27-year-old daughter to help keep the campaign alive.

“With her help, I want to get Anocha back someday,” he told NHK. “Even if it’s only her ashes, I want to bring her back.”