Tag Archives: Kim Jong Un

Xi, Park And Abe: Neighbours Who Have To Get Along

PRESIDENT XI JINPING and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, chose an opportune moment to announce their two nations would hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Date and location are to be determined but Seoul in October or November this year is likely. Prime Minister Li Keqiang would probably attend for China.

The backdrop to the announcement was the parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, or the Second World War in Asia as it is known in the rest of the world. That let both Xi and Park point up their anti-Japanese credentials with domestic audiences, while still setting out to resume the trilateral summits that had occurred until 2012 when Chinese-Japanese relations took a decided turn for the worse over territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Such a resumption serves to reassure both Beijing, that it is not being ganged up upon by two U.S. allies and Washington that one of its allies isn’t moving closer to the Chinese camp. This Bystander does not expect the meeting to yield any concrete results beyond a commitment from all parties to hold the summits annually. A mooted trilateral free-trade agreement remains a distant prospect.

Two other aspects of Park’s visit to Beijing caught this Bystander’s eye. One was her choice of a striking yellow jacket for her appearance at the Beijing parade, where she flanked Xi with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the other side. Yellow was the emperor’s colour in imperial times and retains a superior status to other colors to this day.

Second was her expression of gratitude to Beijing for its “constructive role in defusing recent tensions on the Korean peninsula.” This, we understand, was sending a PLA mechanized brigade close to the border, a strong signal to Pyongyang to quieten down.

One thing that did not catch this Bystander’s eye at the parade was Kim Jong Un. He has still to visit China since becoming North Korea’s leader.

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Drought Diplomacy In North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Farm No. 1116, under KPA (Korean People's Army) Unit 810, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on June 1, 2015. KCNA

CORN AS HIGH as Kim Jong Un’s thigh. That, at least, is what the picture above released by North Korea state media on June 1 shows.

The reality is likely to be different.

The isolated regime is suffering its worst drought in a century — probably its fourth ‘worse drought in a century’ of the past decade. Pyongyang’s news agency, KCNA, reported last week that paddies in the main rice-farming provinces of Hwanghae and Phyongan were drying up for lack of rain. Food supplies, never plentiful, are now at risk of falling — again — to the level of famine.

The devastation wreaked on the economy by the drought s compounded by the fact that 50% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower. Reports finding their way to this Bystander suggest that most parts of the economy are already feeling the effect of power shortages.

North Korea was hit by severe and fatal famine in the 1990s and relied on international food aid to get through. However, Pyongyang’s suspicion of humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow independent monitoring of food distribution, makes international agencies reluctant donors.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are arguable at their lowest ebb. China even rebuffed North Korea’s putative interest in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Nonetheless, China’s foreign ministry said last week that the country was willing to help its drought-stricken erstwhile ally avoid a humanitarian disaster.

One set of questions is what price, if any, Beijing can extract from Pyongyang in return over its controversial nuclear program, and whether Pyongyang is ready to grasp an excuse providently offered to it by nature as an opportunity to back down from the nuclear tests and missile launches that have brought international sanctions down on it.

Another is whether Pyongyang can get food aid from Russia or Cuba, both places recently visited by senior North Korean officials, as an alternative to China, and even whether the regime is over-egging the pudding in regard to the severity of the drought. Last year, according to North Korea’s news agency, food production increased by 48,700 tons compared to 2013 — regardless of reports of severe drought.

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Trade Drives Shifting Alignments Of Northeast Asia

LET US LOOK at President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul and Japan’s embryonic rapprochement with Pyongyang in the hard light of commerce. To this Bystander, it is that more than politics that is reshaping the alignments of the region.

China has been South Korea’s leading trade partner for the past decade. It now accounts for a quarter of South Korea’s trade, and a larger share than that of the U.S. and Japan combined. China-South Korea trade will if anything grow, as a result of a forthcoming free trade agreement between the two countries and a new agreement to make more yuan and won directly convertible.

In raw numbers, China-South Korea trade is more than 40 times greater than China’s trade with North Korea, $247 billion vs. $6.6 billion, even though the latter has trebled since 2007 as Beijing has sought to ease Kim Jong Un’s regime back from the brink of Beijing’s nightmare — an economic collapse of the North triggering a flood of refugees across the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces.

A new generation of leaders in Beijing views Pyongyang differently than its predecessors. More than half a century on from the end of the Korean War, unwavering support of comrades-in-arms just seems outdated and especially now China, South Korea and Japan have become economic powers in their own right. Beijing wants to distance itself from Pyongyang, though not by so much it allows room for Tokyo and increasingly Moscow to step in. It is telling that Xi’s recent visit to Seoul was his fifth meeting with his strongly pro-U.S. South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye since becoming president though he has yet to visit Pyongyang.

Japan’s latest promise to ease some minor sanctions against North Korea in return for Pyongyang re-investigating abductions of Japanese nationals by North Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s is a sign of how Tokyo is working the new folds in the regional landscape. Continuing concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear programme in the unpredictable hands of Kim Jong Un will limit how far Tokyo will want to carry its rapprochement, and Washington won’t let it go too far for the same reason.

The North’s nuclear ambitions remain the elephant in the room for China, too. Xi is unlikely to push Kim as hard on this as Park would like. In Seoul, he avoided any sign of support for Park’s criticism of the programme and stuck to Beijing’s line of calling for the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Nor will the U.S. want relations between one of its two main Asian allies and China to become too cosy. On that front, it will take some comfort in the fact that Park rejected Xi’s proposal of a joint celebration of next year’s 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II. Every leader in the region has a middle against which he or she needs to play two ends. In contrast to the dangerous eddies of northeast Asian geopolitics, the course of commerce runs swiftly and truer.

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Mr Kim Goes To Beijing, Or Not

North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, wants to make a state visit to Beijing. He has reportedly asked to be invited around the same time as China will be making its own leadership transition. The world’s youngest head of state is hoping for a halo effect, no doubt. The request was conveyed by  Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in the course of his visit to Beijing last week. This Bystander suspects that Jang didn’t return home bearing a gilt-edged engraved invitation card for his nephew from President Hu Jintao.

The lack of enthusiasm is understandable, even setting aside the question of timing. China wants Kim to pursue economic opening, both as a means to avert an economic collapse of the reclusive and impoverished state, and as a way to access the country’s mineral resources, though that, like the special economic zones that have been jointly set up, are so far more promise than reality. The bigger impediment is Beijing’s displeasure at Kim’s enthusiasm for nuclear  and missile tests. It sees these as an unnecessary international provocation. Nor is it thrilled by the prospect of having a nuclear armed neighbor that has a history of behavior almost as reliable as its missiles. Pyongyang may see its nuclear threat as its only card in the diplomatic game with Washington. China has a better hand and is playing a more complex game.

So far Beijing’s foreign ministry is saying nothing, but then it is the Party not the government that handles relations with Pyongyang. Its young guns don’t see themselves as having much in common with the 20s-something third-generation despot. They are serious players on the world stage, not tin-pot dictators. Nor is their China the China of their grandfathers’ generation, which stood shoulder to shoulder with Kim’s grandfather in the Korean War. If Kim’s North Korea has changed in the ensuing half century and more,  it is, if anything, only for the worse.

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Mrs Kim Revealed

This photo released on July 25, 2012 by KCNA, State media of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), shows Kim Jong Un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, inspects an amusement park in Pyongyang, capital of DPRK. The official KCNA news agency confirmed Wednesday that top leader Kim Jong Un has been married. (Xinhua/KCNA)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s mystery woman is his wife. That would be the wife the rest of the world didn’t know about until North Korean state media confirmed it on July 25th in a report about the couple attending the opening of an amusement park (above). She is Ri Sol Ju. It is not known when the couple married, or if Ri is the North Korean singer of the same name. Or related to Ri Yong Ho, the  army’s chief of general staff and the most senior political figure in the military until he was ousted earlier this month as Kim tightened his grip on power.

There has been intense speculation about the identity of the woman who was first shown to the world on  July 6 sitting next to Kim at a concert in Pyongyang. Ri is now thought to be the 27-year old daughter of a professor and an obstetrician from Chongjin in northeast North Korea, and who is herself a science graduate of the elite Kim Il-sung University. South Korean analysts have suggested that Kim and Ri married in 2009 and have a child, born in 2010. But that is as much speculation as is the discussion of the implications of Ri’s Western dress and hairstyle.

China’s state media have restricted themselves to noting that “South Korean observers say that the recent appearances of the two were meant to cultivate a new image of the DPRK leader and demonstrate the stability of the country”. Note, too, in the picture above, some younger faces and sharper suits than are usually to be found in photographs of Kims published by North Korean state media.

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Beijing’s Wary Watch On A Power Struggle In Pyongyang

The price of Beijing’s support for a dynastic succession in North Korea was always meant to be that the young Kim Jong Un would start to follow a course of economic opening similar to the one China embarked on 30 years ago. That was seen in Beijing as the way to avoid regime collapse sending millions of North Korean refugees flooding into China, and to give Beijing first digs on the minerals of resource rich if dirt poor North Korea.

Such a change was always going to mean a stepping back from the late Kim Jong Il’s policy of putting the military first, the basis of his dictatorship, and reassertion of the primacy of the Workers’ Party over the army. The sudden ousting of Ri Yong Ho as chief of general staff and the most senior political figure in the military following a Workers’ Party meeting convened on Sunday suggests that process is underway.

What is impossible to tell is whether that is Kim Jong Un keeping up his end of the bargain with Beijing, or whether he is ruthlessly tightening his grip on power, just as his father did before him after succeeding his own father, Kim Il Sung. China’s state media reported Ri’s downfall in a terse, neutral tone, suggesting they had no more advanced warning than the rest of the world. Yet the suddenness of the onset of Ri’s purported illness indicates that what ails him is a power struggle in Pyongyang. At 69 Ri is young enough by the standards of North Korea’s ruling elite (with one obvious exception) to remain otherwise in rude good health. But although he was influential in smoothing the dynastic transition from the late Kim Jong Il and acted as a mentor to Kim Jong Un, he has not retained the younger Kim’s confidence. In particular, he is said to have resisted the new leader’s orders to deploy soldiers for economic infrastructure projects, an issue that had become symbolic for the army of the forced retreat from its primacy. (Massive state infrastructure development is straight out of China’s economic development playbook.)

Ri’s position was undermined earlier this year when Kim Jong Un put his own man, Choe Ryong Hae, a former Workers’ Party official with no military background, into the army as a vice-marshall and political overseer. There have been persistent reports of lower level purging of army officers, including some executions of those deemed not to have shown sufficiently loyalty to the new leader. Pyongyang has hitherto maintained its facade of unity. With Ri’s dismissal the first cracks are starting to show publicly. If the political turbulence beneath becomes too extreme, that will cause concern in Beijing, which is already growing impatient with its neighbour, and starting to worry that Kim Jong Un wants to be his own man, not its.

Update: The official KCNA news agency says Hyon Yong Chol has been promoted to vice-marshal. It is not clear if the relatively unknown former general becomes army chief in Ri’s place. Update to the update: State media are now referring to Hyon as the army’s chief of staff.

Further update: Kim Jong Un has been promoted to marshal and thus becomes supreme commander of the army. How at leaves the relationship between the military and the Party remains to be seen, but Kim clearly sits atop both at the apex of power.

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The Mystery Of Kim Jong Un’s Mystery Woman

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North Korea’s First Ladies are rare birds. A recorded sighting of Kim Ok in Nanjing last year accompanying the late Kim Jong Il on a trip to China caused quite a stir. Now the Dear Leader’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un, has been spotted in close public proximity to an elegantly dressed young mystery woman (above). Is it his wife? There have been rumours since last year that Kim had married a graduate of the elite Kim Il-sung University. Or is she his personal assistant, as Kim Ok started out with Kim Jong Il? A paramour? South Korean press have speculated she might be Hyon Song-wol, a well-known opera singer, who also happens to be married and dropped out of public sight in 2006. Or even Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Yong, though South Korean press say the sister and the woman have been seen together. Yet so little do we on the outside know about the Hermit Kingdom that we have no real clue.

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China’s Growing Impatience With North Korea

The script was meant to go like this: Beijing would back dynastic succession in Pyongyang in return for North Korea under Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, adopting gradual economic reforms along the Chinese model. That way, China’s erratic and impoverished neighbor would become a more stable political and economic ally, and the threat of millions of starving North Korean refugees flooding across the border into northeast China in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime would be alleviated.

Unfortunately for Beijing, Kim Jong Un has lost the plot.

Relations between North Korea and its only friend in the world have hit rock bottom. Beijing is furious. Chinese state media have given unusual prominence to the Chinese fishermen who were seized in North Korea earlier this month and returned with tales of beatings and starvation at the hands of their captors. That was a rare public embarrassment of Pyongyang by Beijing, which for years has defied world opinion in repatriating North Korean refugees caught in China knowing that they and their families will receive similar harsh treatment once returned.

Beijing has other reasons for its displeasure. North Korea is not only not keeping it side of a bargain but it is also not showing the respect China believes it deserves for being its long-suffering political and economic lifeline. Pyongyang didn’t give Beijing advance warning about the deal it struck with Washington in February for American food aid in return for apparent concessions on missile and nuclear programs. It then brushed aside China’s objections to conducting a rocket test, objections made unusually publicly. Beijing even backed a resolution condemning the test in the UN security council, a forum in which it previously backed all sorts of North Korean nonsense. That the test failed so spectacularly–and stood in such sharp contrast to the success of China’s space program–was a cause of a great deal of quiet satisfaction in Beijing.

China has been getting increasingly irritated by its old ally for some time. Bilateral relations are, unusually with China’s foreign policy, handled on a party-to-party rather than a government-to-government basis. While there is historical logic to the practice, it is becoming increasingly anachronistic. China’s incoming generation of leaders were no more than babes in arms, if that, at the time of the Korean War. The Pyongyang regime, where second generation leadership prevails, aren’t comrades in arms. They are a deadweight dragging on China’s increasing global role and an erratic threat to regional security that complicates relations with the U.S., Japan and South Korea for no very great advantage.

Inexplicable and unpredictable provocation was Kim Jong Il’s way. Kim Jong Un may be trying to show himself to be his father’s son. He is likely egged on by generals who threatened by economic reform. Like all North Korea’s political elite, they have vested interests in the military-industrial complex. This includes the country’s international arms trading business and the companies to which North Korea’s 10-year economic development plan has been assigned for implementation. The military-industrial complex is pretty much the North Korean economy.

The poverty of the rest of the country concerns Beijing even more. Millions of starving North Koreans fleeing a failed state into northeast China constitutes the worst-case scenario. The current crackdown on illegal North Koreans in China and on the organizations who help them should be seen in this light.

Beijing’s long-term strategy is to draw North Korea into its economic orbit, with an assumption that a some point foreign policy will follow as the economics start to make cooperation rather than provocation North Korea’s underlying interest in dealing with its neighbors. They have evolved in the more than a half century since the Korean war in a way North Korea has not. China now sees South Korea and Japan as frenemies, potential free-trade partners as well as allies of the U.S. to be contained. Kim Jong Un, however, is still gambling that he can rely on China’s continuing support for as long as stability on the Korean peninsula is more important to Beijing than the collapse of his regime.

If he is testing the limits of Beijing’s support–as good a guess as any given how little is known about what actually goes on in the highest echelons of the Pyongyang regime–he is playing a dangerous game, albeit one learned from his father. Kim Jong Il, however, was adept at calibrating the risks. Kim Jong Un may be too inexperienced to do so.  He may particularly be miscalculating China’s opportunity cost from being seen to be beholden to Pyongyang: a diminution of its credibility as a regional or world power. Beijing still looks after its old friends, but not unconditionally. Beijing may have changed more than Kim Jong Il and the rest of the power elite in the Hermit Kingdom realize.

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Chinese Lessons For North Korea’s New Leadership Generation

One way to look at the leadership transition in North Korea, and the prospects it holds, is to put a Chinese generational template over it. China’s new leadership that will be taking over from next year comprise the fifth generation since Mao’s revolutionaries. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un represents only the third generation of leaders, and, because of his young age, its vanguard, perhaps even only the forward scout of the vanguard.

It is the second generation–Kim Jong Il’s generation–that rules North Korea. The Dear Leader was only 69 0r 70 when he died, so there is still wind in his contempories’ sails. They are what any Chinese would recognize as princelings, the privileged offspring of the original revolutionary leaders–and overwhelmingly the sons in North Korea’s case. Like their Chinese counterparts, while they will have factional interests, they have a much greater vested interest in maintaining the status quo on which their position, power and privilege depend. Any interest in economic or political reform is subordinate to that.

The second generation of North Korean leaders bear some similarities to China’s third generation of leaders in that they were all Soviet or Soviet bloc educated, but unlike China’s third generation, and their own fathers, they neither fought against the Japanese in the 1940s nor against the Americans and South Koreans in the early 1950s. Nonetheless the military holds greater sway over the civilian elite than it did in China. The National Defence Commission governs the country and the industrial-military complex is pretty much the economy.

Like celebrities who are famous for being famous, North Korea’s second generation ruling elite is primarily interested in maintaining its position as the ruling elite. The third generation that Kim Jong Un’s succession may usher in is an unknown quantity. Many of its members have been schooled in some part in Western Europe and the U.S. (Like Kim Jong Un they study abroad under assumed names and pass themselves off as the children of embassy staff.) Whether that gives them a different world view to their predecessors and whether, if it does, the elite Kim Il Sung University to which they return snuffs it out, is anybody’s guess.

They are too young–with one obvious exception–to have risen to positions of power in the military or the Workers Party of Korea yet. They may be the best long-term bet for changing the focus in North Korea from the poverty of socialist self-sufficiency to economic reform along Chinese lines, but this Bystander, at least, wouldn’t bet the bank on them to do more than ensure their own positions are secure. That may be the bargain that Beijing will have to strike to nudge its neighbor towards the economic development that China, and most everybody else, sees necessary for regional stability.

Nor, as far as we know, is there a North Korean equivalent of Deng Xiaoping waiting to make a political comeback and launch economic reform. When the Dear Leader  purged, like his father before him, he purged for the generations.

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China And North Korea In The Era Of Kim Jong Un

North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il, and his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, attend a party event in Pyongyang, October 10, 2010Pyong

China has spent much of the past year or so doing what it can to ensure stability in the event of a leadership transition in North Korea. Now that moment has come, with the sudden announcement that Kim Jong Il’s late 20s-something youngest son, Kim Jong Un (second right in the North Korean state news agency picture above), has succeeded his father (first right) following what was said to be a fatal heart attack to the long ailing Dear Leader on Saturday.

The elder Kim, who had been in poor health since suffering a serious stroke in 2008, had also been preparing his dynastic succession. Last year, he designated Kim Jong Un as his successor and had him appointed to senior party and military positions. Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, had been grooming his nephew and will likely act as the still inexperienced and untested Kim Jong Un’s mentor. As vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC), though he came up through the Party, not military, and the most powerful man in the country not named Kim, Jang will continue to be the power behind the throne for now.

A decade earlier, the elder Kim had given the military via the NDC the leading role in domestic politics even as the family remained the godhead of the totalitarian power structure. If the military remains committed to this arrangement–and there is no indication at this early point that it isn’t–then stability should persist even as the political elite assess and adjusts to the new axis of power–and Kim Jong Un consolidates his position.

Where the cracks could open up–and where they cross one of Beijing’s core interests–is over economic reform. At Beijing’s prompting, Kim Jong Il had started to show some interest in reforming the bleak wasteland of the North Korean economy, though experiments with private markets and currency reform backfired. To what extent will the military be open to the economic development that the starving country needs? As with the PLA in China, while not all generals are ideological hardliners, like all North Korea’s political elite, they have vested interests in the military-industrial complex. This includes the country’s international arms trading business and the companies to which North Korea’s 10-year economic development plan has been assigned for implementation. Those could be challenged by any meaningful economic reforms. Unlike in China, there is not much of an economy outside the ruling elite’s sway where reform could be got underway, or to create alternative honeypots.

The bargain it is assumed Kim Jong Il struck with Beijing was that it would support an orderly dynastic succession in return for a move towards Chinese-style economic reform in North Korea and an expansion of trade, including mineral extraction and exports to China. Most immediately, Chinese firms have expanded their presence in the special economic zones on the North Korean side of the two countries’ border (run by companies controlled by the North Korean Party and military elite), and improving road links from Jilin.

Beijing also wants an end to the sort of provocative and potentially destabilizing international incidents that have studded North Korea’s relationships with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. One sign of how the military wants to play North Korea’s relationship with China now will be how it handles the potential resumption of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. U.S. officials had recently discussed an exchange of food aid for concessions on uranium enrichment. While Kim’s death will put all such talks on hold for now, whether China gets to take up the reins at the appropriate moment, will provide one indication of how the relationship stands.

At the same time, North Korea has become less useful to Beijing as a buffer state between it and South Korea, Japan and the U.S. China relationships with those countries have been transformed since the Korean War half a century ago. Nor does North Korea occupy the same position in the sentiments of younger Chinese officials as it does in those of older ones for whom the Korean War is not ancient history, and who see themselves having more in common with the progress South Koreans has made than with impoverished, starving North Korea. That is especially true of foreign ministry officials who, unusually, have to play second fiddle to the Party when it comes to North Korea policy.

Next year is the centenary of the birth of the Great Leader, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. That offers a potential buffer of stability. It also provides a deep well of dynastic heritage from which Kim Jong Un can draw legitimacy as he consolidates his new position, though Beijing would have hoped Kim the father would have lived long enough to do the drawing. Most countries would welcome stability until at least then. Beyond that it is in the interest of everyone, save perhaps for the North Korean military, that the country does change. Beijing, itself under new leadership from 2012, will use both carrot and stick to promote that, continuing to press for economic reform and access for its trading and mining companies, and making it clear that North Korea can’t expect any protection in the event of acts of international provocation.

China’s official message of condolence on Kim Jong Il’s death was a reflection of that, fraternal but measured. It may credibly be read as China treating Kim Jong Un’s North Korea as a normal neighbor, rather than a blood brother–if the Kim dynasty can ever be said to be normal. A North Korea with close economic ties to China is what Beijing sees as the best chance of creating a stable and restrained country that doesn’t inexplicable and unexpectedly provoke its neighbors. Myanmar is a model for the relationship, if a slightly less perfect one than before but still better and less scary than what it has now.

Footnote: The news portal NetEase has 59 evocative pictures spanning Kim Jong Il’s life.

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