The Abductees We Must Not Forget

[imText1]It was January, 1978 when Anocha Panjoy left the countryside of Thailand for Macau. Along with two friends, the 23-year old was off to work in the richer, Portuguese colony.

According to the testimony of friends, Anocha left her Macau apartment on May 21st of the same year, saying she was heading for a beauty parlor. By the time she was reported missing on July 2nd, she had been gone for more than two months.

Now, Anocha has been gone more than 30 years, just one among hundreds of foreign nationals reportedly abducted by North Korea during the second half of the twentieth century, and the only one, as far as is known, from Thailand.

Why North Korea took her is unclear, though many of the much better known Japanese abductees of the era were apparently taken so they could train North Korean spies in the language, culture and mannerisms of Japan. But take her they did; and for the 27 years immediately following her disappearance, nobody even knew that much.

The breakthrough came when Charles Robert Jenkins, the “Reluctant Communist,” one of four American servicemen who famously deserted their posts in South Korea and defected to the North during the early 1960s, was allowed to leave North Korea in 2004 with wife Hitomi Soga. The following year, he revealed that one of the three other American defectors, Larry Abshier, had married Anocha and lived with her in an apartment near his for almost a decade between 1980 and 1989.

According to Jenkins, Anocha explained to him how she had been tied up by agents in Macau, sedated and left on a beach where she was picked up by boat and taken to North Korea. En route, Anocha apparently recalled, the North Korean agents even washed her clothes.

Jenkins and Soga had more evidence, too. When Anocha’s family met Jenkins and Soga in Tokyo, Soga was able to pick Anocha out in any picture of her and her friends and family dating from before her disappearance.

[imText2]But better still was one photo which Jenkins gave to Anocha’s family. In it, Jenkins sits, sunburnt and smoking a cigarette, with Soga and their young daughter Roberta on Wonsan beach some time, Jenkins believes, in the summer of 1984. It is a nice photo of a family day out, a very normal scene.

But in the left corner of the frame, some meters away and looking down at another child, sits Anocha. It is the last picture of Anocha, anywhere.

North Korean Freedom Week is not just a time to work for the freedom of the North Korean people. It is also a time to remember and advocate loudly on the behalf of the 500 or more South Koreans, up to 100 Japanese and twenty or more citizens of other nations whose kidnappings at the hands of the North Korean state have gone, in many cases, largely uninvestigated. One of those unfortunate few is Anocha Panjoy.

[imText3]Anocha’s nephew, Bangjon Panjoy, is in Seoul for Freedom Week alongside Tomoharu Ebihara, the director of “Association for the Rescue of North Korean Abductees,” to tell Anocha’s story to the world. Alas, Anocha’s father, a Korean War veteran who longed for his daughter’s return for so long, cannot be here. He passed away five years ago, aged 93, just three months before the family learned from Jenkins that Anocha was alive and well in North Korea.

Bangjon believes that the Thai government would rather ignore this case; that it doesn’t want to rock the boat. The family, Bangjon believes, is being swept under the carpet.

“Thailand doesn’t want to get any problem because of one girl who disappeared from the countryside,” Bangjon says. “If Anocha Panjoy was the daughter of the prime minister or famous person it would not be like this, but we are just a small family from the countryside.”

“We are not big company owners, not senators, not famous people, just a small family in the countryside. The government is not interested in the life of us at all,” he continues, the bitterness obvious in his voice.

“Even in Thai society, our existence is very small. The Thai government recognizes that the relationship between Thailand and North Korea is more important than taking care of Anocha’s life.”

Bangjon and Ebihara hope, however, that if Thailand is elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 it will be possible to bring more pressure to bear on the Thai government to try and get Anocha back from North Korea. For the time being, however, Bangjon is off to the studio of Radio Free North Korea, one of a handful of radio stations broadcasting into North Korea.

There he will read, in Thai, a letter written to Anocha by her brother, in the faint hope that somewhere, someone might understand it.