Abduction of Thai Woman Far from Resolution

Courtesy of Banjong Panchoi
A photo of Anocha Panchoi, believed to have been taken in Bangkok around 1976.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Fifteen years have passed since suspicions first arose that of Anocha Panchoi, a now 66-year-old Thai woman, had been abducted to North Korea. Pyongyang has denied the allegations and to this day, Panchoi’s whereabouts remain unknown. The lingering political turmoil in Thailand has hampered efforts by the Thai government to resolve the issue.

“The last time I saw my aunt, she was here talking with her family. That was 42 years ago,” said Banjong Panchoi, 51, running his fingers across the floor of an old wooden house in the suburbs of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand on Nov. 27.

The house was built with the money Panchoi sent home during her time working in the capital, Bangkok.

Panchoi went missing in 1978 in Macau, where she went for temporary work. After that, the family began to struggle. They borrowed money by putting up their land as collateral and made loan payments while they worked plowing the fields.

“She said that she’d be back in three months [but she never came back],” said Panchoi’s niece Urai, 58, with her eyes downcast. “Since then, many of our family members have passed away.”

She added that even though the house has gotten old, “We’ll keep it standing and wait for her so that she’ll recognize it when she comes back.”

In 2005, Charles Jenkins, the husband of Japanese abductee Hitomi Soga, revealed that there was a Thai woman who had been abducted in Macau and brought to North Korea. He also released a photo of himself and the woman.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Banjong Panchoi, right, and Urai speak about their missing aunt Anocha Panchoi in front of the house built with money she sent to her family in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

An investigation conducted by the Thai government identified the woman as Panchoi, thrusting the family into the media spotlight.

The family personally handed a letter to then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who hails from the same area, asking him to rescue Panchoi from North Korea. The government made multiple requests to North Korea to confirm the safety of Panchoi, only to receive replies that there was no such woman.

Banjong and other family members have visited Japan and South Korea, the home countries of other North Korea abductees, and attended international conferences on the issue of abduction to appeal for help. However, not much progress has been made.

Because Thailand has diplomatic ties with North Korea, the Thai government has continued trying to break the deadlock through diplomatic channels. A senior Thai foreign ministry official said, “Rather than placing international pressure [on North Korea], we would like to find a solution through regular talks based on friendly bilateral relations.”

Politics in Thailand have been in turmoil since the collapse of the Thaksin administration in a military coup, which took place about a year after the abduction allegations came to light. Since then, administrations in Thailand have been more focused on domestic affairs than on diplomacy.

A diplomatic source said: “Currently it’s a matter that is only handled at the administrative level. Unless politicians cooperate with the international community, the issue will fade [into obscurity].”