Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

Understanding the North Korean Nuclear Threat

In response to North Korea’s second successful test firing on Friday of its newest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), known as the Hwasong-14, the U.S. military staged a flyover of the Korean peninsula by two B-1B supersonic nuclear bombers based on the western Pacific island of Guam. The U.S. Missile Command also conducted a successful test launch of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), an advanced medium range missile defense system, which the U.S. has been deploying in South Korea, despite objections by China.

These demonstrations of U.S. military power did nothing to ease the concerns raised by North Korea’s tests, which proved that its missiles, potentially carrying nuclear warheads, now have sufficient range to easily reach the West Coast of the United States, and at least as far inland as Chicago.

Presidents since Bill Clinton have been talking about doing something to stop the North Korean nuclear weapons programs, but North Korea’s leaders have proven themselves to be impervious to increasing diplomatic and economic sanctions. They have grown increasingly confident that that the U.S. will not take direct military action against them.

As a result, President Trump finds himself stuck with the challenge of cleaning up a difficult and dangerous military and diplomatic mess that his predecessors left behind. At his cabinet meeting Monday, he expressed confidence that he will find the solution to the problem, declaring, “we’ll handle North Korea. We’ll be able to handle North Korea. It will be handled. We handle everything.”

Previously, Trump discussed the North Korea situation in a phone call with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who praised the president’s commitment to “take all necessary measures to protect” Japan from the growing North Korean menace.

Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to NATO ally Estonia Sunday, told reporters that, “the continued provocations by the rogue regime in North Korea are unacceptable, and the United States of America is going to continue to marshal the support of nations across the region and across the world to further isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically.”

While saying that “all options are on the table” presumably including using military force to counter the North Korean threat, Pence emphasized the U.S. belief that “China should to more” to resolve the problem by increasing the pressure on the rogue Pyongyang regime of Kim Jong Un, which it has been propping up economically and defending diplomatically.

Even George W. Bush, who sent U.S. troops into Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein on the basis of a similar perceived nuclear threat, pulled back rather than use U.S. military power to take down the North Korean regime. Bush ignored dire warnings from his State Department arms control expert, John Bolton, and “kicked the can down the road” to his successor, Barack Obama. His response was to treat the outrageous behavior of the North Korean regime and its growing nuclear threat with a policy of “benign neglect.”

Adding to the problem, U.S. enforcement of its own economic sanctions against North Korea, in addition to those imposed by the United Nations, has been sporadic, at best. The North Korean regime has been successful in finding numerous Western firms willing to provide North Korean leaders with all kinds of banned luxury items, as well as the specialized items needed by North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

For decades, North Korea was notorious for its involvement in international drug smuggling and the mass production of near-perfect counterfeit U.S. currency. Today, its criminal activities are largely centered on computer crime by North Korean government teams of expert hackers and the exportation of North Korean slave laborers to third world countries, including some U.S. allies. Agents acting on behalf of North Korea have also been successful in aggressive efforts to launder its huge illegal profits through the U.S.-controlled international finance system. In many cases, their task was made easier because the Obama administration officials effectively ignored the efforts by some of its allies to help North Korea evade U.S. and international sanctions.


Earlier this year, North Korea demonstrated the capabilities of its Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile, which had the range to hit Alaska or Hawaii. Its first successful test firing of the Hwasong-14 ICBM took place on July 4. The H-14 uses the same missile technology that North Korea used to launch its Earth satellite last year.

Western missile experts were impressed that North Korea was able to stage a second successful launch of an improved version of the H-14 on Friday, which demonstrated an even longer range than the missile it fired on July 4.

According to experts at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the H-14 missile which North Korea fired on Friday flew for 45 minutes. It was fired almost straight up, reaching a maximum altitude of over 1,800 miles, but traveling only about 600 miles before splashing into the sea not far from Japan. If the missile had been fired with a flatter trajectory, it would have been able to hit a target more than 6,000 miles away, which is approximately the distance between North Korea and Los Angeles.

After studying the data from the launch, Johns Hopkins analysts believe that the extra range of the missile fired on Friday was probably due to a more powerful second stage rocket compared to the one fired on July 4.

This is another indication of the rapidity of the progress that the North Koreans are making towards perfecting a practical long range nuclear weapons delivery system.

North Korea is also developing solid fueled rockets which can be launched more quickly and would therefore be more difficult to attack on the ground than the liquid fueled H-12 and H-14.


North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has also been making rapid strides. After three small and only partially successful nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, North Korea detonated two powerful nuclear devices in 2016, with power roughly equal to that of each of the two atomic bombs which the U.S. dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which forced Japan to surrender, ending World War II in the Pacific.

Those first American bombs were huge devices, weighing several thousand pounds each. It took the U.S. and the Soviets years of intense research effort to come up with weapons small enough to fit inside a missile warhead, and weighing less than 1,500 pounds. The technical obstacles to designing such compact weapons were overcome decades ago. Current nuclear weapons are small enough so that several of them can now fit within a single missile warhead, which are also capable of aiming them to hit widely separated targets. Modern missile warheads are also now equipped with decoys in order to fool sophisticated missile defense systems.

Western experts believe that North Korea’s capable nuclear designers should be able to solve the problem of miniaturizing their weapons within a few years at most.

In response to Friday’s missile test, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, said, “North Korea remains the most urgent threat to regional stability. Diplomacy remains the lead. However, we have a responsibility to our allies and our nation to showcase our unwavering commitment while planning for the worst-case scenario.”

“If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing,” O’Shaughnessy said.


President Trump has taken a much tougher attitude towards the growing North Korean threat than his predecessors did. After years of North Korea breaking its negotiated agreements with the U.S. and its allies in the region to end its nuclear weapons program, more diplomatic talks with its leaders seem pointless. North Korea has also defied six sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed upon it because of its nuclear and missile development activities.

The Trump White House is increasingly relying on diplomatic pressure on China to punish the North Koreans for their defiance. The administration has been trying to get China to take action by sanctioning Chinese companies doing business with North Korea. The U.S. has also publicized plans for a defensive and offensive military buildup in the region for itself and its allies, Japan and South Korea, which China very much wants to avoid.

So far, Trump’s efforts to turn up the heat on China to take action against North Korea have not worked. Trump was initially very optimistic that he would make progress on North Korea and trade issues with China’s President Xi Jinping, but after a good start, relations between the two leaders have soured.

In June, Trump tweeted, “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi and China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried.”


Last month the U.S. sanctioned a regional Chinese bank, a shipping company and two Chinese citizens over their dealings with North Korea.

China did publicly chastise North Korea for its provocative missile test on Friday, but the main emphasis of its statement was to caution the U.S. and its allies not to overreact.

“The UN Security Council has clear regulations on North Korea’s launch activities that use ballistic missile technologies. China is opposed to North Korea’s launch activities in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and against the will of the international community. At the same time, China hopes all parties act with caution, to prevent tensions from continuing to escalate,” a statement from China’s foreign ministry said.

Over the weekend, Trump expressed increased frustration at the lack of action by China to shut down the North Korean weapons programs and warned that the failure could have a negative impact on the broader U.S.-China trade relationship.

“I am very disappointed in China,” Trump tweeted. “Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”

Hours later, Xi publicly announced that China will speed up its military modernization program. Addressing the troops at a Chinese army parade, he said that “the world isn’t safe at this moment. A strong army is needed now more than ever,” but he did not specifically mention North Korea or Trump’s comments.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called China and Russia North Korea’s “economic enablers.” He added that while the U.S. still wants a peaceful resolution to the increased tensions with North Korea, top U.S. military officials are now consulting with their South Korean counterparts to discuss a potential joint military response to the North Korean threat. The weekend flyover of the Korean peninsula by U.S. strategic bombers, accompanied by South Korean fighters, demonstrated the kind of military responses they were talking about.

As tensions over North Korea and trade relations with the U.S. increased, China stepped up its cooperation with Russia. Together, they blocked a U.S.-supported draft UN Security Council resolution to expand sanctions against North Korea which was proposed shortly after the first ICBM test on July 4.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, weighed in on Sunday by saying the U.S. is “done talking about” North Korea and “China is aware they must act,” in cooperation with the U.S., Japan and South Korea if there is any hope to reach an international solution to the North Korean threat short of war.

Haley rejected the idea of bringing the problem back to the U.N. Security Council, noting that “North Korea is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity. . . The time for talk is over. The danger the North Korean regime poses to international peace is now clear to all.”


The recent developments in North Korea are so disturbing that even anti-nuclear liberals and pacifists are expressing worry about a real nuclear risk for the United States.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund, said in an interview on Sunday, “People have been warning about the North Korean ICBM for 20 years. But the wolf is at the door. This a very real threat to the United States.”

Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, who receives top secret level briefings as a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said on Sunday that she was “very disappointed in China’s response” to the latest North Korea developments, which she called a “clear and present danger” that the U.S. must take seriously.

She noted that under its current leader, Kim Jong Un, North Korea has moved much faster than anyone expected to develop a real nuclear missile threat to the population centers of much of the continental United States. “We can’t have that,” she declared.

China’s leaders are still not taking the recent tough talk by Trump and U.S. military leaders seriously. The international memory is still fresh of the empty threats of military retaliation former President Obama made against the despotic regimes in Iran and Syria before he backed down and caved in to their demands. Trump has already proven that he is made of sterner stuff. He launched a one-off missile attack against a Syrian base that was used for a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

However, the Syrian regime was in no position to fight back. China’s leaders apparently don’t believe Trump would be willing risk the much more serious likely consequences of such an attack on their ally, North Korea.

China’s leaders seriously doubt that Trump would order a pre-emptive military strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear missile program before it reaches fruition, risking a war with North Korea that could kill millions of South Korean civilians living near the border.

“The military option the Americans are threatening won’t likely happen because the stakes will be too high,” said Liu Ming, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s a pretext and an excuse to pile up pressure on China. It’s more like blackmail than a realistic option.”


The U.S. has been very reluctant to directly threaten to use military force against North Korea since the Korean War was halted by an armistice in 1953. There never was a peace agreement reached between North Korea and South Korea and a technical state of war between them still remains in effect. Since that time, North Korea has maintained one of the largest standing armies in the world, with a huge concentration of conventional artillery, mostly deployed on the border with South Korea along the 38th parallel.

The strategic problem facing the U.S. is that Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, has 10 million residents, and is only 35 miles from the North Korean border. Much of that population is within easy range of North Korea’s largest artillery pieces.

The U.S. has maintained a “trip-wire” force of about 28,000 troops in South Korea near the border to serve as a deterrent to a North Korean ground invasion, such as the one that started the Korean War on June 25, 1950. There is no doubt that the U.S. military response to a North Korean invasion would be swift and devastating, but it could not prevent a North Korean artillery bombardment against Seoul’s civilian population from inflicting massive casualties.

In June, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that an armed conflict with North Korea would leave Seoul facing casualties “unlike anything we’ve seen in 60 or 70 years.”

That is the deterrent the North Korean regime has relied upon, enabling it to defy world opinion and the United States military for the past sixty years.

North Korea’s leaders believe that the addition of a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland would make them totally immune to any risk of U.S. retaliation for their defiant and aggressive behavior


Despite the provocations orchestrated by North Korea’s unstable leader, most analysts believe that China views the potential collapse of Kim’s regime as a more immediate strategic threat to its interests than any economic sanctions the U.S. might impose in retaliation. China’s leaders also fear that a North Korean collapse would lead to a tidal wave of refugees seeking to cross the border into China, and a takeover of the North by the pro-U.S. South Korean regime. Despite the annoyances created by the North Korean regime, China’s leaders see it as a strategically valuable buffer zone protecting China from its economically powerful pro-Western regional rivals, Japan and South Korea.

China accounts for about 90 percent of North Korea’s international trade, but the Kim regime does not knuckle under to pressure from China’s leaders either. Earlier this year, North Korea warned China of “grave consequences” after it banned imports of North Korean coal, and the government controlled Chinese media stepped up its criticism of Kim’s regime.


Andrew Gilholm, the director of North Asia analysis at Control Risks Group in Seoul, says that North Korea is “probably correct” in its view that it can survive sanctions long enough to build up an arsenal larger enough to force the rest of the world to accept it as a nuclear power. Therefore, Gilholm says, the U.S. must make a “dramatic move” this year against trade with China if it hopes to convince China’s leaders to reign in the North Koreans.

“If the U.S. really loses patience and moves against major Chinese banks or firms it will certainly impact North Korea’s financing, but I don’t see Beijing making a radical policy change under that kind of pressure. It’ll likely harden China’s insistence that Washington has to deal with [the North Korean leaders in] Pyongyang, not coerce China into strangling it,” Gillholm added.


The rogue North Korean regime has been steadily working to build a missile capable of posing a serious threat of nuclear attack to the U.S. mainland for thirty years. With the two recent successful ICBM launches, it is now within sight of that goal. It needs only to reduce the size of its nuclear weapons to fit inside a missile warhead and design a warhead capable of surviving re-entry into the atmosphere to complete a weapons system capable of menacing America’s largest cities with nuclear destruction.

U.S. weapons experts believe that North Korean technicians are likely to achieve those goals before the end of President Trump’s first term, and possibly as soon as the end of next year.


Currently, the U.S. has only a very limited nuclear missile defense capacity deployed to protect the continental United States. Development of defenses against ICBMs was frozen during the latter part of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. According to the treaty’s terms, both sides were limited to one defensive missile site each consisting of no more than 100 missiles. The object of the treaty was to make sure that each side knew that it would be unable to launch a nuclear first strike on the other without sustaining a devastating nuclear retaliation in return. This strategy of mutual deterrence was also known as MAD, an acronym for “mutually assured destruction,” and it remains in place to this day.

Russia maintains 68 nuclear armed ballistic missile interceptor rockets to protect Moscow, while the U.S. has been upgrading its nuclear defenses to deploy 44 missile interceptors to defend Alaska and the West Coast.

The U.S. military has spent $40 billion to develop the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system capable of altering its trajectory after being launched to track and compensate for evasive movements by incoming nuclear warheads.


The GMD system is still experimental. According to Bruce Blair, a former U.S. military nuclear launch officer and an expert on nuclear security, the current defense system has an estimated efficiency of only 25% for destroying incoming warheads. That is because the GMD interceptors destroy their targets by direct physical contact. ““We have to actually hit a bullet with a bullet,” Blair explained to a reporter for the Business Insider, in order for the GMD interceptor to succeed. On average, only 1out of 4 GMD interceptors will destroy their target, so the 44 interceptors being deployed are only sufficient to ward off 11 North Korean nuclear warheads before the defense system is exhausted.

Each Russian defensive missile has a higher likelihood of destroying an incoming nuclear warhead because they employ nuclear warheads themselves. As a result, the Russian missiles do not need to make a direct hit to be effective. Their nuclear explosions will destroy every incoming warhead within a half-mile of the detonation. The downside is that using the system means detonating dozens of nuclear explosions over populated Russian territory, with unpredictable and possibly devastating consequences to those on the ground.

However, the nature of the nuclear threat confronting the U.S. has changed. Russia, while still maintaining a large offensive nuclear missile force, is no longer the immediate problem. Neither is Iran, whose nuclear threat to the region has been contained at least for a few more years by the nuclear inspection agreement it signed with the U.S. and its allies in 2015. With July’s missile tests, the quickly emerging North Korean nuclear capability has become a real threat which the U.S. can no longer afford to put off confronting.


The current U.S. homeland missile defense system was originally designed to protect the country against relatively limited missile threats from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea. But the rapid development by the North Korean regime of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capacity has caught U.S. military leaders by surprise. This is why the Trump administration has been much more aggressive than its predecessors in responding to the latest North Korean military advances.

The THAAD missile defense system tested Sunday was designed to provide protection for U.S. allies and bases abroad against shorter-range, lower-flying ballistic missiles. It is not designed to work against much faster ICBMs, so its deployment is technically not in violation of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty. In addition to the THAAD units being installed in South Korea, the U.S. has a based THAAD interceptors in Guam capable of shooting down short, medium and intermediate range missiles fired from North Korea.

In the test, the THAAD interceptor rocket was fired from a base in Alaska and aimed at a medium range missile fired from a U.S. Air Force plane flying over the Pacific Ocean.


The installation of THAAD missiles had been initiated by the previous South Korean government. It was halted with the May election of President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned on a platform of more serious efforts to reach a reconciliation with North Korea. Since taking office, Moon has sought to engage with North Korea, calling for peace talks and saying he’d meet Kim under the right conditions.

The latest North Korean missile launch has forced the South Korean president to backtrack. He initiated renewed talks with the U.S. on deploying more THAAD interceptor missile launchers on South Korean soil, at least on a temporary basis.

Moon’s national security advisor has also reached out to his counterpart in the White House, General H.R. McMaster, for cooperation in upgrading South Korea’s U.S.-made ballistic missile systems.

South Korea’s military response to the increased threat prompted a stronger protest from China’s Foreign Ministry than the criticism it directed at North Korea’s for its latest missile tests.

“China is gravely concerned with the course of action taken by South Korea,” a Foreign Ministry, spokesman said. “Deploying THAAD won’t solve South Korea’s security concerns, won’t solve the related issues on the Korean Peninsula and will only further complicate issues.”

The intense North Korean military buildup has also prompted the Japanese government to invest in upgrading its military capabilities, including the possible purchase of an American-made missile defense system.

Analyst Gilholm expects China to try to placate Trump by taking some modest additional trade measures against North Korea, which would not be serious enough to make major problems for the Kim regime.

“China has a lot of room to step up pressure on Pyongyang while staying well short of a really destabilizing cut-off,’” he said. “Personally, I don’t think North Korea is going to roll over and give up its nuclear survival card even under a life-threatening level of economic pressure.”


The day before the latest North Korean missile test, a South Korean government agency called the Korea Financial Security Institute (FSI) issued a report describing the infrastructure of North Korea’s sophisticated hacking and cyber-attack operations, many of which are aimed at South Korean agencies and private firms.

The operation has been divided into multiple specialized groups. It is increasingly focused on stealing funds for use by the North Korean regime, rather than obtaining military secrets or destabilizing key foreign computer networks.

North Korean hackers are believed to have been responsible for last year’s audacious cyber-attack intended to rob Bangladesh’s central bank and the distribution of the WannaCry ransomware which infected computers around the world.

Earlier this year, Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab identified a North Korean hacker operation called BlueNoroff which specializes in cyberthefts from financial institutions. It is believed to be an offshoot of a previous North Korean hacking group called Lazarus.

The FSI report said that it had identified a common source, it named “Andariel,” for eight cyberattacks on South Korean computers from 2013 to this May. Some of the attacks were relatively low-level operations aimed at stealing bank-card information from South Korean ATMs, the kind of activity which is usually associated with organized crime.

The North Korean hackers sold the swiped South Korean ATM data to accomplices in Taiwan, China and Thailand, who then tried to withdraw money from those accounts through local ATMs. South Korean law enforcement officials were able to quickly figure out how the scam operated, and shut it down after only several thousand dollars were illegally withdrawn from those accounts.

These officials say that such cyber-attacks have become routine. They estimate that South Korean targets withstand as many as 1.4 million hacking attempts a day.


The FSI report also painted a fuller picture of North Korea’s sophisticated digital army. Kim Seung-joo, a university professor who is a member of a South Korean government cybersecurity team, said, “The problem is that it’s not just simple attacks anymore with North Korea. It’s more orchestrated now, as if it were a military operation.”

North Korea’s hacking teams have been trained and developed internally for years by the army and the Ministry of State Security, and they are reportedly well-paid.

According to a 2015 Pentagon report, North Korea sees offensive cyber operations “as a cost-effective, asymmetric, deniable tool that it can employ with little risk from reprisal attacks.”

According to Vitaly Kamluk, a global research and analysis director at Kaspersky Lab, the North Korean hackers have also targeted organized crime rings. Kamluk called it a “perfect crime. When you steal from a thief, nobody will go after you. Law-enforcement will focus on the criminal that stole the money in the first place.”


North Korea is also known to be a major supplier of slave labor employed by Arab countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emerates (UAE).

A Washington Post report says the North Koreans work under harsh, forced labor conditions, including malnutrition and physical abuse, and are constantly being spied upon by North Korean intelligence agents.

Officials in Qatar say the North Korean workers are being sent home as their visas expire, but as recently as 2015 there were reportedly 3,000 of them doing forced labor.

In addition to exploiting slave labor, a UAE company has been accused of brokering a $100 million arms deal with North Korea.

A 2015 U.N. report estimated that Pyongyang has sent 50,000 North Koreans to job sites overseas and collects between $1.2 and $2.3 billion each year for their work. North Korea sees the oil-rich countries in the Middle East as one of the prime markets for their slave labor.

A typical Persian Gulf employer will pay about $1000 a month for a North Korean worker. The North Korean government takes half that amount and the local construction company managers who oversee the workers take another $300. That leaves the North Korean worker with only $200 for a month of hard work under harsh conditions, a fraction of what other migrant workers in the same region are typically paid. But $200 a month is still considered to be a relatively good wage in a country like North Korea, where the average per capita income is only $1,700 a year.


North Korea began developing its nuclear weapons program in the early 1980s at its nuclear research facility at Yongbyon. The Soviets had helped the North Koreans build a small research reactor there which became operational in 1965. In 1979, the North Koreans built a second reactor there on their own, along with equipment to process uranium ore into reactor fuel rods.

It ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, but did not agree to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) until 1992. The next year, IAEA inspectors found evidence that North Korea had violated the treaty by enriching uranium and engaging in other activities related to the development of nuclear weapons, and referred the case to the U.N. Security Council for disciplinary action.

In 1994, President Clinton was ready to confront the North Koreans militarily over their nuclear violations when former president Jimmy Carter personally intervened. He went to North Korea on his own and negotiated a deal with its leaders under which North Korea was to receive two civilian nuclear reactors and $5 billion in aid in return for a promise to give up its nuclear weapons program. The deal that emerged was called the Agreed Framework.


The North Koreans got their aid, but reneged on their part of the bargain in 2003 by announcing that they were withdrawing from the NPT. The so-called six party talks for another deal with North Korea then began with South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. North Korea then ejected the IAEA inspectors from their research reactor at Yongbyon and began reprocessing spent fuel rods to extract plutonium to use as the core for nuclear weapons. In 2005, after North Korea was confronted with incontrovertible evidence, it admitted that it was building nuclear weapons, and exploded its first test nuclear device in 2006.

The North Koreans then cut another deal with the five countries in 2007, again promising to halt their weapons program in return for fuel and talks to normalize relations with Japan and the U.S.

This deal fell apart when the North Koreans threw out the IAEA inspectors again in 2008. In 2009, they conducted their second nuclear test and started illegal missile tests. One last attempt to cut a deal was made by the U.S. and its allies in 2012, but it too failed when North Korea conducted another illegal missile test.



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