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Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board is often criticized, with some justification, for being too lenient. Immigrants are routinely granted refugee status despite coming from peaceful democracies such as Hungary and Mexico, and claimants whose behaviour is unwholesome or even criminal are accepted if there is a belief they may face persecution if sent home.

The opposite appears to be true in the case of Song Dae Ri, a North Korean trade official who fled to Canada with his wife and son in August of 2001, applied for refugee status and was rejected. In fact, the IRB member who heard the case seems to have shown a lack of compassion that is as serious as an excess of it would be.

According to the board's decision last September, Mr. Ri's claim was rejected because he was a member of the North Korean government. As a result, the board decided he was guilty of war crimes and therefore not entitled to refugee status under the United Nations' Convention on the Status of Refugees. It ruled he was "not deserving of Canada's protection."

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The board member in question came to this conclusion despite finding that there was a "serious possibility" that Mr. Ri would be persecuted should he return to North Korea, and that there was also a "serious possibility of risk" to his life and "a danger of torture," as outlined in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In fact, the board did not question the evidence that those found guilty of treason -- as Mr. Ri certainly would be -- are executed in North Korea, and that their family members are often persecuted as well. Mr. Ri testified that both his father and his wife, who was lured back to North Korea by her parents, were killed. The board even granted Mr. Ri's six-year-old son refugee status for that very reason. Yet Mr. Ri's claim was denied.

Was he a high-ranking member of the military? No. A member of the state security agency? No. The available evidence is that he was a trade official with the embassy in Beijing whose job was to buy and sell corn, wheat and mushrooms. The IRB, however, ruled that he was complicit in the atrocities of his government because he took his job voluntarily and didn't leave North Korea at his first opportunity.

The board didn't seem to believe his assertion that he was a low-level trade officer, noting that he had a staff and a separate apartment at the embassy. The board member also said the North Korean official left not because he was opposed to his government's policies in principle but because he made some comments while under the influence of alcohol and was afraid of the consequences of his actions.

In the end, the board decided that because he did not complain about his government's repression of its people or flee earlier, Mr. Ri "committed crimes against humanity." The board reached this conclusion even though Canada's War Crimes Unit said in writing that he was not of interest to it and that there was no evidence he had committed war crimes.

Certainly North Korea is a brutal regime. That's all the more reason why the IRB should give extra thought before rejecting the claim of someone who has escaped from that country. Picking nits about whether Mr. Ri was a high-ranking official seems to miss the point, as does assuming a trade official was complicit in the atrocities of the entire government.

The board pointed out that other avenues are available to Mr. Ri, including a claim on compassionate or humanitarian grounds (an option he is now pursuing). But that isn't the point either. Mr. Ri should not have to endure another two or three years of hearings, not to mention the fear of imminent deportation, simply because the IRB thought he met the broadest possible definition of a war criminal.

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