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May 19, 2021
North Korea Policy Review Nears Completion
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The Biden administration is wrapping up its North Korea policy review, which is expected to be completed within the coming weeks. The review could mark a shift in Washington’s posture toward diplomacy with Pyongyang that diverges from those of previous administrations, including from his immediate predecessor Donald Trump.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden look through binoculars toward North Korea during a visit to observation post Ouellette at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on December 7, 2013 in Panmunjom, South Korea.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)When asked whether President Joe Biden’s approach to North Korea would include meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as former President Trump did on several occasions, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “I think his approach would be quite different and that is not his intention.”

State Department Spokesman Ned Price has made clear, however, that denuclearization will remain the focus of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Price said that any efforts to negotiate with North Korea will be taken in “lockstep” with close allies, including Japan and South Korea.

The Biden administration has taken several concerted steps to engage close U.S. allies in East Asia while the review is underway. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with National Security Secretariat Secretary-General Shigeru Kitamura of Japan and National Security Office Director Suh Hoon of South Korea April 2 to consult on the North Korea policy review. Before that, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Tokyo and Seoul March 15-18, where they met with their counterparts in both capitals to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to security in the region.

Although the subject of North Korea was not listed in a March 10 State Department press release, Blinken, Austin, and their counterparts appear to have discussed in-depth the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review and Washington’s next steps toward diplomacy with Pyongyang. While in Seoul, Blinken relayed that the United States is considering both “different kinds of pressure points” and diplomacy while curating its new approach. “In a sense, everything is on the table,” he said, “We have a very open mind about it.”

Blinken and Austin issued a joint statement together with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook pledging to work together on matters pertaining to North Korea, among other things. According to their statement, “the ministers and secretaries emphasized that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are a priority for the alliance.” Blinken reiterated President Biden and his administration’s preferred approach to diplomacy with Pyongyang: “we’re committed to the denuclearization of North Korea, reducing the broader threat [North Korea] poses to the United States and our allies, and improving the lives of all Koreans.”

Blinken also said China must use its “tremendous influence” on North Korea to persuade the country to denuclearize. Blinken, speaking to reporters ahead of meeting with his Chinese counterparts in Anchorage March 18 said that Beijing has a “clear self-interest in helping to pursue denuclearization” of North Korea, because “it is a source of instability.”

Nearing the end of the Secretaries’ trip, North Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui issued her own statement, and the first direct rebuttal out of Pyongyang directed at the Biden administration. “The U.S. has tried to contact us since mid-February,” she said, but added, “we don’t think there is a need to respond to the U.S. delaying-time trick again.” The Biden administration confirmed that Washington did quietly reach out to Pyongyang in February, “to reduce the risks of escalation,” but received no response.

Choe said, “no [North Korea]-U.S. contact and dialogue of any kind can be possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards [North Korea] … in order for a dialogue to be made, an atmosphere for both parties to exchange words on an equal basis must be created.” Her comments were likely in part a response to continued U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which are held on an annual basis. Washington and Seoul began those drills March 7, albeit an abridged version due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea has frequently cited U.S.-South Korea military drills as impeding productive dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. In periodic durations of stronger bilateral relations, including throughout the months between former President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s summits in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019, the United States has suspended or modified joint exercises as a signal of good faith to North Korea.

“If the U.S. wants so much to even sit with us face to face, it has to drop its bad habit and adopt a proper stand from the beginning,” Choe Son Hui said in her statement. Kim Yo Jong, sister to the North Korean leader, stated March 16, “war exercises and dialogue, hostility and cooperation can never exist together.”

Choe added that the United States “had better contemplate what we can do in the face of its continued hostility toward us. We already clarified that we will counter the U.S. on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.”—JULIA MASTERSON, research associate, SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Peace Fellow, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

North Korea Tests New Missiles

North Korea conducted two rounds of missile tests in March, the latter of which marked its first launch of a ballistic missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions during President Biden’s time in office.

Pyongyang kicked off its missile testing Sunday, March 21, with the launch of two short-range cruise missiles. The test garnered a muted response from the White House; a senior U.S. official told The Washington Post the event did not violate any United Nations Security Council resolutions and was “a normal part of the kind of testing that North Korea would do.”

The White House was reportedly warned by senior intelligence officials of the possibility that North Korea could conduct missile tests, which may have prompted concerted efforts by the Biden administration to engage with Pyongyang in February (see above.) After the United States and South Korea conducted an abridged version of their annual military exercises in early March, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned that if the new Biden administration “wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink.”

In violation of Security Council resolutions, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan Thursday, March 25 –less than a week after the cruise missile tests. Pyongyang confirmed the test and noted the missiles hit a target 373 miles away using a solid-fueled missile that features “low-altitude gliding leap type flight-mode” and called them “new-type tactical guided missiles.”

There is some speculation that the missile tested March 25 was a modified version of one of the three solid-fuel ballistic missiles North Korea has tested since 2019. The system appears designed to carry a heavier payload than what would be necessary for a nuclear warhead suggesting the system might be designed for conventional explosives.

The 2021 Worldwide Threat Assessment, released April 9, noted that North Korea “continues to improve its conventional military capabilities, providing Kim with diverse tools to advance his political objectives or inflict heavy losses if North Korea were attacked.” This includes a “more diverse strategic and tactical ballistic missile force.”

Unlike the cruise missile launches, the tests of two ballistic missiles posed a violation of the United Nations Security Council's prohibition on ballistic missile tests by North Korea, codified in Resolution 1718 (2006).

Biden remarked after the tests that “we are consulting our allies and partners, and there will be responses if they choose to escalate. We will respond accordingly.”

He reiterated that the United States is “prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization.”

Following Biden’s comments, Ri Pyong Chol, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, relayed in a statement that Pyongyang expresses “deep apprehension over the U.S. chief executive faulting the regular testfire, exercise of our state’s right to self-defence.” He said Biden’s condemnation of North Korea’s tests as violations of Security Council resolutions revealed the new U.S. president’s “deeply-seated hostility” toward North Korea.

Ri Pyong Chol went on to say that “if the U.S. continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good.”

North Korea appears to be planning to expand its sophisticated missile program to include new hypersonic missile technology. A new college called “College No. 11” focused on hypersonic technology was recently established at the Kim Jong Un National Defense University and officials are reportedly taking steps to cultivate specialists who can lead the country’s missile testing. Hypersonic weapons travel roughly five times faster than the speed of sound and are relatively impenetrable by advanced missile defense systems.

In addition to hypersonic weapons, satellite imagery analysis conducted by several non-governmental North Korea experts based in the United States suggests the country may be preparing to conduct another missile test – this time of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

According to an April 6 analysis published by Beyond Parallel, North Korea is transporting a submersible missile test barge that is located at the Sinpo shipyard, which they say could indicate either a forthcoming SLBM test or routine maintenance of the barge. North Korea displayed a new SLBM at its military parade in January but has not conducted any known tests of that system.

The Worldwide Threat Assessment also said Kim “may be considering” the resumption of long-range missile and nuclear testing this year “to try to force the United States to deal with him on Pyongyang’s terms.”

UN Finds North Korea Continuing to Violate Sanctions

North Korea continues to build up its nuclear and missile programs, despite international sanctions, by using its illicit procurement and export tactics and networks according to the United Nations Security Council’s Panel of Experts’ February 2021 report.

Established by Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009), the Panel of Experts (referred to as the “Panel”) regularly assesses the implementation and enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea. From Aug. 4, 2020, to Feb. 5, 2021, the Panel investigated the following: illicit import (through direct delivery and ship-to-ship transfers) of refined petroleum, export of coal, acquisition of vessels, sale of fishing rights, transfers of sanctioned commodities and goods, access to international banking channels, North Korean overseas businesses, malicious cyberactivities, alleged military cooperation, and other similar cases.

Based on its findings, the Panel offered 29 recommendations for improving enforcement that range from short-term piecemeal solutions toward emerging issues to long-term campaigns toward more effective sanctions enforcement. These involve measures such as further sanctions designations on vessels and individuals, upgrading international maritime trade protocols and enforcement – such as proper verification-of-origin checks for ships that conduct ship-to-ship transfers, regular assessment and address of unintended adverse impacts of sanctions on the people of North Korea, and addressing of opaque corporate registration rules and regulations.

Growing Nuclear & Ballistic Missile Programs

North Korea continues to violate UN resolutions through continued development of its nuclear program, which entails the “production of highly enriched uranium, construction of a light water reactor, and maintenance of nuclear facilities” according to the Panel.

The Yongbyon nuclear center, which is where North Korea extracts weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel, showed several operational signs: plumes of steam at the uranium dioxide (UO2) Production Process Building, construction of the light water reactor, and maintenance of the 5 MW (e) reactor, which has the production capacity of around 7 kg/year of plutonium. A Security Council Member State was referenced in the report saying that “the uranium enrichment facility in Yongbyon was operating” during the period covered.

Additionally, the surrounding roads and bridges of the Punggye-ri test site, where North Korea conducted its nuclear tests, were reconstructed after some damage caused by typhoons, according to the Panel. This indicates that while North Korea blew up its testing tunnels along with other small buildings in 2018 as part of its nuclear testing moratorium, access to the site is being maintained.

Further, the Panel report found the construction of new infrastructure and modernization of the buildings at the Pyongsan uranium mine complex, which suggests the “continuation of mining and the operation of processing plants.”

The Panel has also identified at least 161 cases of joint research, studies, or papers since 2017 involving North Korean scholars on subjects that may include prohibited technologies being transferred. This violates international sanctions, specifically Resolutions 2321 (2016), 2270 (2016), and 1718 (2006).

The report noted that North Korea showcased its most recent, updated, and operational ballistic missile systems and new weapons through the two military parades during this reporting period. These took place Oct. 10, 2020, and Jan. 14, 2021. In the former, North Korea featured 11 recently developed ballistic missile systems:

  • A new super-large intercontinental ballistic missile, which is tentatively referred to as Hwasong-16,
  • The Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile,
  • The Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile,
  • The KN-24 short-range ballistic missile, and
  • The KN-23 short-range ballistic missile.

On the latter date, new ballistic missile systems were also featured:

  • The new Pukguksong-5, which is a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, and
  • The new short-range ballistic missile, which resembles the “KN-23.”

These developments critically point to North Korea’s ongoing efforts to upgrade its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Sanction Evasion is a Trend, Not Phenomenon

To bypass the international community’s sanctions, the Kim regime employed several obfuscatory methods such as maritime smugglers and cyber activities detailed in the report.

UN Security Council Resolution 2379 (2017) placed caps on petroleum and crude oil imports at 500,000 and 4,000,000 barrels per year respectively, to ban certain exports like coal, agricultural products, minerals machinery, and electrical equipment, and among other things. The Panel reported that at least 121 shipments of refined petroleum products were imported into North Korea during the first nine months of 2020 and have “exceeded by several times the annual [500,000-barrel cap].”

Although shipments of coal appeared to have been mostly suspended since late July 2020, the Panel found that North Korea had at least exported 2.5 million tons of coal from January-September 2020 in at least 400 shipments to Chinese territorial waters. On July 17, 2020, satellite imagery shows over 40 North Korean vessels and associated vessels at China’s Ningbo-Zhoushan area. China has either reported no records of vessels entering or leaving Chinese ports or denied responsibility for this situation in response to the Panel’s inquiry of the situation.

Other sources have also independently found similar findings, which are aligned with the Panel’s evidence of North Korea’s pervasive maritime sanction evasion tactics and its import and export cap breaches. Pyongyang adapted its fuel-procurement and export strategies by “engaging organized criminal networks and participating in a regional fuel smuggling market” particularly in East Asia according to C4ADS and Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) experts. For instance, China, for its price controls for retail fuel prices, and Taiwan, for its preferential fuel-price policies in which refined petroleum products are lower than those of its neighbors, created an optimal environment for ships to conduct illicit and un-scrutinized import and export transactions that involve North Korean products.

North Korea continues to grow its maritime capabilities, quantitatively and qualitatively, through the additions of foreign-flagged or un-flagged vessels contributing to the illicit smuggling network and through the use of creative evasion tactics, respectively. The Panel illuminated deceptive practices by North Korea such as vessel disguise and identity fraud. More specifically, vessels have been exploiting fraudulent profiles, physical modification, and manipulation of automatic identification system transmission to bypass sanctions.

North Korea does not solely rely on its maritime networks to procure its energy and financial resources. According to the Panel’s report, North Korea has also exploited the cyber-domain. For example, the Panel found that North Korea, through its General Reconnaissance Bureau’s subsidiary cyberthreat entities such as Lazarus, Kimsuky, and the newly identified “BeagleBoyz,” conducted extensive cyber campaigns against financial institutions and defense industries to not only access military technology but also extract information for financial gain. From 2019 to November 2020, the total theft of virtual assets by North Korea is allegedly $316.4 million.

Another potential avenue that North Korea is exploiting is the Dandong-Sinuiju oil pipeline, according to an April 5 report from NK News. Although it is legal to have crude oil flow due to China’s successful argument to the UN that flow restriction would eventually make the pipeline inoperable, there is a dearth of any information and accountability of how much crude oil is flowing through the pipeline. Several North Korean experts David von Hippel and Peter Hayes estimated that 750,000 tons of crude oil would have traveled through the pipeline by the end of 2020.

It is clear that sanctions, which require global cooperation, are not being fully implemented. The incomplete cooperation is not a new phenomenon, but without proper enforcement of sanctions, the concerning violation trends will only continue to grow. The revenue gathered by sanction evasion activities and illicit networks both directly and indirectly support North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Satellite Imagery Shows Activity at Nuclear Complex

Satellite imagery shows continued activity at the Yongbyon facility where North Korea separates weapons-grade plutonium from the spent fuel of its 5MWe reactor. However, it is unclear if the country has resumed reprocessing activities and is producing new weapons-grade plutonium.

In an April 7 analysis, experts at 38 North said that “heightened activities” at the Radiochemical Laboratory continue, but there is “no definitive evidence” that North Korea is reprocessing plutonium. They said there are other plausible explanations for the activities, including maintenance or the processing of radioactive waste.

The same piece noted activities at the Uranium Enrichment Plan that could be related to modifications to the facility’s cooling system or infrastructure.

In March 1 remarks to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors, Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said that “at present there are no indications of the production of enriched uranium at” the centrifuge facility at Yongbyon, but there were indications at the Kangson enrichment site. He also noted the activities at the reprocessing facility and said there are “no indications of operation” of the 5MWe reactor.

Lessons from the Trump-Kim Diplomacy for the Biden Administration

During his presidential campaign, President Biden criticized former President Donald Trump’s approach to diplomacy, including his decision to meet directly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” and “to offer an alternative vision for a non-nuclear future to Kim and the people of North Korea.”

Since taking office Jan. 20, the new U.S. administration has been conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. To date, key officials have offered few details about their strategy beyond reiterating that denuclearization will remain the end goal and that the United States intends to work closely with allies.

The administration’s North Korea policy review is a critical opportunity to forge a more effective U.S. approach toward the long-running effort to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear progress and reduce the risks of a major conflict. The Biden administration’s policy should take into account the positive and negative lessons from the Trump era as the United States seeks to work with regional allies and the international community to move closer to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Read more about the Arms Control Association’s recommendations in an April 13 issue brief, “Biden’s North Korea Policy Review: Toward a More Effective Strategy.”

Key Actors To Know

North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-Hui poses for a photo ahead the welcome ceremony of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1, 2019. (Photo:LUONG THAI LINH/AFP/Getty Images)Choe Son Hui (최선희) is North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs and one of the key leaders in Pyongyang’s foreign policy toward the United States. She holds substantial political clout and serves in the Workers Party of Korea’s (WPK) Central Committee (alternate member) and the State Affairs Commission (member). Choe will likely continue to play a critical role and influence on the direction and progress of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy.

Recent Actions

Choi delivered March 17 one of North Korea’s recent rebukes of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercise and called Biden’s early outreach attempts a “delaying-time trick.” She is allegedly not only reworking North Korea’s U.S. foreign policy strategy, seemingly on the “principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill,” but also serving as the head of such strategy and department.

From July to early October 2020, Choe reportedly served three months of forced labor and ideological education at a collective farm in Pyongyang’s Hongjesan District. The cause was an altercation – allegedly, tensions flaring – between Choe and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon. She was reinstated after the completion of the punishment.

Diplomatic Background

Choe Son Hui has served many diplomatic roles in key U.S.-North Korean dialogue, summits, and meetings for around the past two decades, starting as an aide and interpreter at the Six-Party Talks. She was one of the main negotiators in the Trump-Kim summits and is one of the few female leaders in the higher echelons of North Korea’s political leadership.

Adopted daughter of the current North Korea Premier Choe Yong Rim, Choe Son Hui received her education in North Korea, China, Austria, and Malta. Throughout her diplomatic career, she rose from being a researcher and language interpreter to section chief, deputy director, and deputy director-general in the American Affairs Bureau and now to her current role as first vice minister of foreign affairs.

North Koraen Leader Kim Jong Un (L) and sister Kim Yo Jong attend the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)Kim Yo Jong (김여정) is the deputy director of the WPK Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), vice department director to the WPK’s Central Committee, delegate (unconfirmed officially) to the Supreme People’s Assembly, and is the younger sister to the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim plays a significant role in U.S.-North Korean relations.

Recent Actions

Kim Yo Jong has taken a critical role in U.S.-North Korean diplomacy, particularly on the subject matter of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. In both March 2020 and 2021, she has publicly released statements rebuking the exercises. In the most recent one, Kim warned the new Biden administration to not cause “a stink at its first step” and argued that “war drill and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation.”

She has grabbed international attention within the past few years. She attended all three face-to-face Trump-Kim Summit meetings as North Korean leader’s confidant adviser, and Kim was her brother’s emissary to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Diplomatic Background

Before her brother’s ascension to power, Kim Yo Jong was a quiet figure; it is believed that she went to school (1996-2000) in Switzerland and resurfaced in North Korea in 2008 due to her father, then-leader Kim Jung Il’s health issues.

After her brother succeeded in becoming the leader, experts believe that she assumed the role of protocol secretary in her brother’s Personal Secretariat, thereby becoming the organizer of his official activities. Her roles and responsibilities expanded throughout her career as she took charge of Department 54 (an entity designed for supplying necessities like coal and electricity to the military), Room 39 (cash-earning agency), Room 38 (cash-earning agency), Konghung Guidance Bureau, and Rakwon Guidance Bureau. She has held an official post in the North Korean political regime since 2014 at the very least.

Although Kim was dismissed in January 2021 as an alternate member of North Korea’s Politburo, which is one of the highest political decision-making bodies, her political clout remains unchanged according to 38 North experts.

Further, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on Kim Yo Jong and PAD in January 2017 for human rights abuses and censorship activities.

Recent U.S.-North Korean Events



Jan. 5-12

North Korea’s Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea takes place, during which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calls the United States as its “primary Obstacle” and “biggest enemy … [to the] development of our revolution,” lauds the completion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in Nov. 2017, and announces the developments of “super-large hydrogen bombs,” 11-axle missile trailers, mid- and long-range cruise missiles, anti-rocket systems, heavy tanks, howitzers, multiple-warhead missiles, new types of ballistic missiles, “hypersonic gliding flight warheads,” electronic weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, and military reconnaissance satellites.

Jan. 20

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.

Feb. 25–
early March

North Korea Yongbyon nuclear center’s radiochemical laboratory shows smoke emissions in the steam plant via satellite imagery according to 38 North experts.

March 8

U.S.-South Korean computerized joint military exercise begins and lasts until March 18, and South Korea Minister of Unification Lee In-young calls for North Korea’s “wise and flexible attitude” toward the exercise.

March 12

Biden’s first QUAD meeting takes place, and member countries -- Japan, India, the United States, and Australia -- commit to the denuclearization of North Korea.

March 13

The United States confirms diplomatic outreach attempts to North Korea.

March 15-18

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III convene with South Korean and Japanese counterparts to strengthen alliances and cooperate on key issues such as the denuclearization of North Korea.

March 16

Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and younger sister of the North Korea leader, rebukes U.S.-South Korean joint military exercise and warns the Biden administration from “causing a stink at its first step.”

March 17

First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Korea Choi Son Hui states that U.S. attempts for contact, referred to as a “delaying-time trick,” are ignored and that North Korea conducts relations with the United States on the “principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.”

March 22-23

Chinese President Xi Jinping conveys China’s willingness to “preserve peace and stability on the peninsula so as to make new contributions to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity” to North Korean leader Kim Jung Un.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un positively responds with a verbal message of “the need to strengthen the unity and cooperation between … the two countries to cope with the hostile forces’ all-around challenges and obstructive moves” to President Xi Jinping.

March 25

North Korea launches two short-range ballistic missiles, which are referred to as “new-type tactical guided missiles,” as part of their “self-defensive right” to deterrence. According to South Korean and Japanese experts, the missiles in-flight altitude ceiling and range are 60 kilometers and 450 kilometers respectively.

President Biden states that there would be “responses if [North Korea] chooses to escalate. We will respond accordingly. We are also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditioned by the end of result of denuclearization.”

March 27

Ri Pyong Chol, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), calls Biden’s response to North Korea’s ballistic missile tests “gangster-like logic.”

April 2

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan consults with South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review and calls for “concerted trilateral cooperation towards denuclearization.”

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