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Thai abductees 'stuck in North Korea'

UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses by North Korea hears testimonies of possible abductions in Thailand.
Last modified: 19 Sep 2013 13:20
Anocha Panjoy is believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents 25 years ago [Banjong Panjoy]

Chiang Mai is only an hour's flight from Bangkok but the area where the Panjoy family live is the anti-thesis of the modern urban setting we'd left behind.

Their traditional wooden house is on stilts surrounded by a carefully tended, blooming garden. Chickens scurry around happily unaware of the deeply felt grief being drawn out from the memories of Anocha Panjoy's brother and nephew.

Sukham remembered his sister's adventures, going to Chiang Mai to learn hairdressing, then moving to Bangkok and finally Macau. He showed us photos of Anocha from the seventies, pointing out the pretty lively face of his little sister. She wrote a note to her brother on the back of one of the photos with her news but there aren't any of her old letters because her family just couldn't bear to be reminded that she was gone.

He remembered the day in 2005 when the family found out through a Thai television report that US defector to North Korea, Charles Jenkins had spoken about a neighbour and close friend to his Japanese abductee wife there. He said she was a Thai woman named Anocha.

Diplomatic bombshell

At the time it was a diplomatic bombshell, North Korea had previously only confirmed its intelligence agents had abducted people from Japan and South Korea. Anocha was kidnapped with two Chinese girls. Jenkins said he met Filipinos and Malaysians who had also been abducted.

The Panjoy family gathered around at the same house we were hearing this story, the house they could only build because of the remittances Anocha used to send. Sukham can't hear much any more but his memory is crystal clear. He said the whole family was weeping and some were asking why Anocha didn't come home if she was in North Korea.

The answer to that lies in North Korea's isolation from the international community because of its nuclear weapons programme and appalling human rights record. The abductions took place during the rule of Kim Jong-Il, it's reported North Korea's late supreme leader was personally involved in negotiations with Japan and Thailand to set up an investigation. But since then diplomatic interest has evaporated.

Banjong, Sukham's son, explains the current Thai Foreign Minister has rudely dismissed him on one occasion and refused to see him on another. This week the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea is holding hearings in Bangkok and Banjong says they initially wanted to come to the family house in Chiang Mai but the Thai Foreign Ministry wouldn't allow them. Banjong asked me why and wondered how it could do that.

The two men brought us upstairs to show us Anocha's room, they keep her childhood dolls and teenage clothes in cupboards. Sukham's lip trembles uncontrollably and his hand shakes throughout our visit but when I ask him what he would like to say to Anocha if she is alive and gets a chance to see this report he speaks without hesitation loud, clear and steady. Grief and painful hope colour his voice and trace new contours and wrinkles on his face.

When cameraman, Julian Hadden and I were planning the shoot, I raised the question of the difficulties of filming an absence. We found it wasn't hard at all.

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Editor's note: The Thai Foreign Ministry has sent our correspondent the following response: