2003 August 06 Wednesday
Negotiations With North Korea Unlikely To Help

Does it matter whether the US negotiates with North Korea and under what format the negotiations take place? Yes, though the main reason is not because of what the negotiations will or will not produce. For reasons amplified on below it seems unlikely that the US will be able to negotiate a deal with North Korea for a verifiable end to North Korea's nuclear prorgam. But nature of the terms the US agrees to for holding the negotiations sends a signal to North Korea as to whether the US feels it is negotiating with a weak hand. Kevin at Incestuous Amplifications lays out reasons why the chattering classes are making too big a deal over the agreement to hold a meeting to conduct multilateral/bilateral negotiations.

There's going to be an assumption by all parties that the typical belligerent North Korea will come to the table, so any behavior even slightly above that expectation will be seen as "progress" from the other 4 parties at the table and likely lead to consensus for further talks, more delays, and more time for North Korea to travel further down the road of nuclear development.

As an example of how the strategy can work, I would point to the Iraqi behavior in the months leading up to the war. They started becoming more cooperative, more open, offering up documents and revelations that they hadn't for the previous 12 years. Of course it wasn't enough, but it led France, Germany, China, and others to point to that behavior as proof of cooperation. Of course compared to the deception and stonewalling of the past, it seemed like progress, but relative to what was necessary for real progress to be made, it was nothing of the sort.

The bar has been set so low with North Korea, that even small steps get magnified and blown out of proportion. This story is actually a perfect example. The sole fact that North Korea is even willing to sit down at the table is being cited as significant progress.

Some people think the US is basically marching toward inevitable victory over North Korea. See, for instance, Steve Den Beste's analysis. By contrast, and partly in response to Den Beste, Kevin argues a more pessimistic interpretation.

The only problem I have is with Den Beste's conclusion. He believes that North Korea agreeing to the talks themselves is a major diplomatic victory for the Bush administration. I don't. The fact that NK plays hard to get doesn't turn a simple sit-down into a victory. If you're facing a hostage situation and the terrorists refuse to even answer the phone for a week, and during that week they kill a hostage per day, when they finally do pick up on day 8 is that a victory for the cops placing the call? In terms of the overall situation, no. And by all measure, since the last talks in April, North Korea has been killing a hostage per day, or as we like to call it, processing plutonium.

Getting them to sit down at the table is not a victory. We've had far too many sitdowns and far too many failures to consider it such, and I believe these talks are doomed to failure from the start anyway. The only relevance of the North Korean concession on the talks is that it will allow them to fail more quickly, allow that failure to be seen by our allies, and allow us to strengthen our position for further economic pressure.

Kevin makes a great point about how a failure of the talks will help build support among our allies for a greater reduction of trade with and aid to North Korea. That is important.

Most of the debate about whether either the multilateral portion or US-North Korea bilateral portion of the talks will be most important is based on an assumption that I think is fallacious: that the talks will be important as negotiations with North Korea. North Korea is playing for time while it develops nukes. It is determined to make nukes unless stopped by either China with a total aide cut-off or by the US with an invasion. The negotiations that matter the most are the negotiations between China and the United States because such negotiations might cause a change in China's approach toward North Korea. After that, the negotiations between the US and its allies matter mostly for the reason Kevin cited: to build up support for more informal sanctions and aid reduction. An expansion of the informal sanctions will cost North Korea. Though it is far from obvious that such sanctions can tip the North Korean regime into collapse or into agreeing to verifiable nuclear disarmament

The main purpose for the US to agree to hold talks with North Korea is to have talks that are multilateral in order to try to get the interests of other parties such as Japan and South Korea granted more legitimacy among the international talking heads. It is valuable for the Bush Administration is to shift the terms of the debate over North Korea's nuclear weapons program so that the conflict is not portrayed as simply a spat between the United States and North Korea. This makes it easier for the US to ask other parties to end trade with North Korea and to cut off aid. That the Chinese were willing to pressure the North Koreans to meet in the multilateral setting in exchange for a bilateral session as well represents a small victory for the Bushies. It might signal a willingness of the Chinese to apply more pressure on North Korea going forward. But even if it doesn't (and it seems presumptuous to assume that it does) at least it helps the Bushies show that the US is not the only country with a strong interest in stopping North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The big question to ask about North Korea is this: Why is the North Korean government developing nuclear weapons? Let us look at potential factors in the thinking about nuclear weapons development in the minds of the elite of the Pyongyang regime in North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-il.

  • The Pyongyang regime may simply be trying to extort larger dollops of aid from the US and other countries in exchange for stopping its nuclear weapons program.
  • The problem with the previous point is that the Pyongyang regime may instead want to become a nuclear power in order to be in a stronger position to extort even greater amounts of aid once it becomes recognized as a nuclear power. Their involvement in negotiations may just be a move to buy time and placate China.
  • The possession of functioning nuclear weapons and technology for making nukes may be seen by the Pyongyang regime as useful for increasing revenue from weapons sales. How much do they think they can sell individual nuclear weapons for?
  • The Pyongyang regime may want a credible deterrent to prevent a US-South Korean land attack. This seems hard to credit given that they already have the ability to kill hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions of South Koreans in event of a war. Also, the North Koreans have pursued nuclear weapons development for many years even while the US was in a very accommodating posture toward North Korea. But if they are already determined to get that deterrent why should they change their minds at a negotiation session?
  • The Pyongyang regime may believe they can survive reductions of other forms of aid as long as the Chinese continue to supply aid and they may believe that the Chinese will continue to supply aid. Therefore they may believe that they have sufficient economic resources to keep their regime in power and to follow thru on their nuclear weapons development efforts.
  • The Pyongyang regime may believe that they have enough of their nuclear weapons program spread out to sites that the US does not know about that they can weather an air strike against their nuclear weapons development sites and still be able to continue to make progress toward building a substantial number of nuclear weapons.

Some commentators believe (against considerable evidence to the contrary in my view) that North Korea's nuclear weapons development program is just a bargaining chip to give up in order to get more aid. In this view, the increase in the level of aid that North Korea was getting from the US, South Korea, and other countries in the late 1990s was not enough for the regime and the regime decided to make a bid for a big increase in aid. If this assumption is incorrect then the negotiations can not result in a deal to stop the North Korean program in exchange for large bribes labelled as aid.

People who cheer negotiations, whether bilateral or multilateral, do so based on the assumption that negotiations can cause a substantial change in the positions of the participants. What reason is there for such optimism when applied to North Korea?

In some respects the US negotiating position is weakening. Memories of September 11, 2001 are fading and being replaced by daily reports of problems in Iraq. The fading of those memories also decreases a recently strong American public desire to see the world changed to make it less of a threat to the United States. The war against terrorism has provided a sense of urgency that has given the Bush Administration the support it needed to attack Iraq. Yet that sense of urgency is fading and is being replaced a more partisan national debate in the run-up to the 2004 election in which the reasons for the war in Iraq and the aftermath play a large role. The level of objection raised about Iraq does not bode well for the ability of the Bush Administration to make credible threats to North Korea or Iran let alone to launch an attack on either. Iraq was far easier to invade than Iran would be and Iran would be far easier to invade than North Korea. Even worse, about half of all US deployable combat divisions are already deployed in Iraq. Even if a moderate amount of political will existed to do a military build-up near North Korea the US would lack the ground troops needed to do so.

As the British military news publication Jane's points out in "On imperial overstretch: can the USA afford to send its troops here, there and everywhere?" US ground troops are already overcommitted.

Twenty-one of the US Army's 33 regular combat brigades are already on active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and the Balkans, amounting to roughly 250,000 fighting men and women. And this does not include a substantial number of US troops regularly stationed in Germany, Britain, Italy and Japan, or smaller contingents now scattered around the world. A traditional calculation assumes that for every soldier deployed on an active mission, two more are required to be kept in reserve, either in order to rotate those in action or to prepare for that rotation. Under this assumption, the USA has already reached its limit today. But, to the frustration of the Pentagon, neither US diplomatic priorities nor the sheer pace of international developments appears to take this into account.

The constraints of a small military weaken US bargaining power with both China and North Korea. Absent a credible US military threat to North Korea and as long as the Chinese are willing to keep the regime supplied with food and fuel why should the North Koreans stop developing nuclear weapons? They may believe they can get more aid by extortion if they make a lot of nuclear weapons and then demand the aid. A few percent of South Korea's economy shipped north per year under a nuclear threat may be an appealing prospect to the North Koreans.

Since the prospects of the US being able to directly bring enough pressure to bear on North Korea are by no means certain we need to look next at China's role. There are a number of possible reasons why the Chinese could decide to cut off aid to North Korea and basically discipline or even overthrow their client:

  • The Chinese leaders could fear that a nuclear North Korea could cause South Korea and Japan to go nuclear.
  • The Chinese leaders could fear that Taiwan might respond to nuclear proliferation in the region to justify their own nuclearization. This probably matters much more to the Chinese leadership than what South Korea or Japan might do since the Chinese want to get total control of Taiwan.
  • The Chinese might want to keep North Korea from getting nuclear weapons simply in order to keep North Korea more easily manipulable by China.
  • The Chinese leaders might decide that if North Korea makes nuclear weapons, sells them abroad, and then some are used that China may be held at least partially responsible. Then again, they might not be too worried about that. It would be valuable to the US to signal publically to the Chinese that the US would hold China responsible if that happened.
  • The Chinese might decide that if they do not stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program then the US will do so with military force and will do so in a way less favorable to long term Chinese interests. But the Chinese have to believe that the threat of US use of force is credible for them to come to that conclusion.

But keep one thing in mind: China has not yet halted aid shipments to North Korea. China's aid is essential for the Pyongyang regime and China also facilitates North Korea's arms trade with overflight rights. If the Chinese saw North Korea's nuclear weapons development program as an urgent high priority problem they would have played the aid card already. Yes, they did cut off an oil pipeline for a few days. But they resumed it and we have no idea what that was about. It could have been a spat over something unrelated to North Korea's nuclear weapons development program. China might decide to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons development program. Or it might just continue along on the current path and do nothing about it except host diplomatic negotiations between North Korea, the United States, and other interested countries.

Until either the US commits to a major arms build-up in preparation for an attack on North Korea or China becomes willing to play the aid card against North Korea my guess is that North Korea's nuclear weapons development program will continue. Therefore the net position of the US in its attempt to stop North Korea will continue to deteriorate.

There is one big wild card in all this: events. A big terrorist attack in the US would reawaken American public anger at terrorists and shift attention toward future threats. A successful attack by Al Qaeda would have the curious effect of giving the Bush Administration more leverage over both China and North Korea because the American public would be angry and in the mood for hardball confrontations.

I try to avoid triumphalist conclusions in my analyses. The world's biggest problems look to me to be hard to solve and, in some cases, unlikely to be solved until some terrible events transpire (e.g. in this case explosion of a terrorist nuclear bomb in a US or other Western city). This coming round of negotiations with North Korea strikes me as nothing to cheer about. The US is now going to sit down at a table with North Korea and 4 other countries. This changes no facts on the ground in North Korea. If I was placing a bet I'd still bet on North Korea's eventually exploding a nuclear bomb and making a bunch of them. My odds for Iran doing the same are lower but still more likely than not.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 August 06 02:55 PM  Korea


Comments
Patrick said at August 6, 2003 5:14 PM:

How about this reason for NK to have nuclear weapons: To keep CHINA in line.

The conventional threat to Seoul is probably enough to keep South Korea, the USA, and probably Japan at bay. (I know Japan is not likely to invade, but this is the thinking of the North Koreans we are talking about.) But not China.

By North Korean standards, China is as much of a Capitalist Imperialist as anyone else. And more likely to invade another country than most. So why wouldn't they be a threat?

All those missiles that can reach Japan, would work perfectly well in the opposite direction, targeting Beijing. Could it be that China is being blackmailled here? "Don't let our country collapse or who knows what might happen to the nuclear tipped missiles aimed at your capital."

That would explain China's supply of aid and assistance to a country they would be better off without. Of course they would never admit such a thing: Loss of face, as well as giving other countries ideas.

B A Patty said at August 6, 2003 6:11 PM:

I'm afraid that I agree entirely with Parapundit's reasoning and conclusion, this time. This is why I feel that, as I said in regard to yesterday's post on Chinese tech thefts, we can no longer stop the DPRK from going nuclear. When they do, our overriding interest in Asia will be preventing DPRK exports, and we will therefore have to do what we must to obtain full Chinese and Russian cooperation. That will mean the loss of Asia to PRC influence.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at August 6, 2003 9:29 PM:

In general, I'm afraid I also must agree with Randall's reasoning and conclusion. I think the North Koreans engaged in some deception with their nuclear program, allowing us to believe that their easily attacked enrichment facility was the only one. This might have led the US to postpone an attack when the plutonium containing rods were still above ground in storage. If so, we probably made a terrible mistake. I think that we could have destroyed that facility and made the plutonium unrecoverable without triggering a full scale war. The North Korean regime may be weird, but they it is not suicidal.

The recent Woolsey and McInerney editorial in the Wall Street Journal implies that we could defeat North Korea with only 50,000 troops (and presumably the ROK army), and also quickly destroy the artillery targeting Seoul. This might succeed in significantly reducing civilian casualties, but would be very risky.

However, we may face such a choice if China does not act quickly. Unfortunately, China's behavior has been consistent with one or the other of the following hypotheses:

1) The are perfectly willing to let North Korea have nukes. They may view them as a useful proxy against the US. They may wait for the nuclear test, and then quietly offer to trade us a disarmed North Korea (still ruled by Dear Leader) for their hegemony over Taiwan (a goal about which they are completely irrational).

2) Their creaky decision making apparatus is unable to quickly make decisions on this issue.

Given that China also has assisted Pakistan in developing nukes, and has not prevented North Korea from helping Iran with nukes and missiles, and Pakistan with missiles, it would appear that China is being quite hostile to US interests. We may need to consider their actions in this area as that of an active geopolitical adversary, and threaten strong economic actions against China itself if it does not behave.

I have some information on my web site about nuclear weapons, with emphasis on terrorist use and effects. To sum it up, it is easy to smuggle a plutonium weapon, especially dissassembled, out of North Korea. The most valuable part, the plutonium pit, can range in size from a softball to a volleyball, depending on the construction technique used. Needless to say, it can also be readily smuggled into the US, at some small risk of detection.

I also think we strongly warn North Korea that any terrorist nuclear detonation anywhere will result in their immediate nuclear annihilation. We should also advise China that the same event would result in severe non-military consequences for them, including a trade cut-off and possibly recognition and arming of Taiwan.

Unfortunately, as more rogue states get nukes - for example Iran - these warnings become less effective, and if we actually do make good on them, the consequences far more tragic. We do not want to have to kill millions of innocent people, but if a nuke goes off in the US, it's going to happen, and North Korea, China and Iran need to understand that.

Randall Parker said at August 6, 2003 10:24 PM:

To B A Patty: I do not think that allowing the Chinese to treat East Asia as their sphere of influence would allow us to be free of the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons sold to other countries and to terrorists. Keep an eye on the biggest threat: nukes getting into the hands of terrorists. The only certain way to prevent North Korea from becoming a source for such nukes is to bring down the regime one way or another.

As for Woolsey and McInerney: It is hard to evaluate their argument that it would be easy to neutralize the NK artillery that is dug into the sides of mountains. Do they know something we don't know? My impression is that we'd have a very hard time taking it out. That is one of the big questions wrt an attack on North Korea. It is my impression that we do not have the tech needed to take out the artillery rapidly. I'd like to know more about this. Certainly it is a subject about which the US ought to do considerable tech development to come up with better solutions.

But as long as the political will does not exist in the US to gear up for a war against North Korea the answer doesn't matter anyhow.

John, even if we hadn't delayed an attack on Yongbyon there is still the separate issue of North Korea's uranium enrichment program. Where is it? How big is it? How far along is it? Also, how much material was removed from Yongbyon before the 1994 Framework Accord? Where is it? Also, is Iran doing uranium enrichment using NK technology in order to share the result with NK as has been rumoured?

China as enemy: sure seems that way.

B A Patty said at August 7, 2003 8:11 AM:

Oh, I agree that the Chinese won't become our friends just because we let them have East Asia. I merely mean that the need to have their cooperation in keeping DPRK nukes out of the hands of terrorist and other rogue states will give the PRC the leverage it needs to require us to yield them East Asia. Doing so won't mean we can trust them. It just means that we won't be able to openly oppose them for fear of what they might let slip through.

I am certainly with you on the destruction of the DPRK. If the President were ready for war, and if we had the troops to commit to it, I would be ready to go today--or, preferably, several months ago, making use of whatever weapons were necessary to suppress DPRK arty on the line. But as you say, there is no will for an invasion: and once the DPRK can destroy Japan as well as Seoul, the development of that will becomes even less likely.

I don't think there is any hope of eliminating the DPRK short of war. There will be no success doing so through sanctions because it is strongly in the PRC's regional interests to let them go nuclear. The Chinese Communist government can see what we can see, which is that a nuclear DPRK will compel the US to seek PRC cooperation, and therefore give them a powerful shield against US interference in their own designs. The PRC will not, therefore, respond to any pressure to cut off the DPRK sufficiently to result in their collapse.

Besides which, the effect of sanctions on tyrannical governments has never been what we desired. The levels of poverty there are crushing already, and malnutrition is so rampant that this week the DPRK lowered their minimum height to, if I recall correctly, 4'3". A populace that won't revolt against a tyranny that starves them on that scale won't revolt at all. How can they? They are already starved, without reserves to draw upon in a sustained disruption such as war, and without weapons. The only people who get food regularly are loyalists, and they are also the only ones with guns.

There is nothing that will bring down the DPRK except war or treason from a highly placed "loyalist" of Kim's. That latter will be very hard to arrange indeed given the strictness of Kim's quarantine of his state. In Iraq, there were foreigners in and out all the time with various companies and agencies, giving intelligence officers cover to operate; plus ranking Baathists had cell phones and email accounts and internet access, giving us a way to talk directly to them without meeting in person. None of that is in place in the DPRK. Radio broadcasts won't do it, as they are one-way, not allowing for negotiations. Nor will it yield a revolution: educating the people about life outside the DPRK may deepen their despair, but it won't give them the physical stamina that only food can bring, nor weapons to oppose their masters.

It would be possible, if we could identify a target for seduction, to insert a team through HALO jumps or by submarine. That's a very high-risk method of recruitment, though, and we'd need to be pretty sure of success in negotiations and insertion/extraction to try it.

VKLakshminarayan said at August 7, 2003 8:47 AM:

Here is some lateral thinking off the mainstream line. If the US were to denuclearise and call for universal nuclear disarmament, it would ride high on popularity and univesal support and take the wind out of the nuclear sails of all those haves and the aspirants of nuclear weapons. Conventional weapons that US has may also be more than sufficient for attack as well as defence. Any takers?

Bob said at August 7, 2003 10:13 AM:

A non-nuclear USA terrifies me. What would deter anyone?

Randall Parker said at August 7, 2003 11:08 AM:

B A, We won't be able to get the Chinese to act to prevent the Norks from selling nukes. There is not a deal we can make with them that involves our withdrawal from the region in exchange for their preventing the Norks from selling nukes. Once we had pulled back why would they feel a need to keep up their end of the deal? What leverage would we have?

VK, Why would US unilateral disarmament take the winds out of the sails of nuclear power wannabes? They'd see the value of their own nukes increased once the ability of to strike back with nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack was eliminated. They'd see nukes in their hands to be even more powerful if the US was non-nuclear.

Come on guys. There's no dreamy easy way out of our predicament. There's no deal with the devil or utopian solution to fix things.

VKLakshminarayan said at August 7, 2003 7:47 PM:

Please read again what I said. I said UNIVERSAL disarmament not unilateral disarmament by any one country. And think again.

Bob said at August 7, 2003 8:16 PM:

Calling for someone else to disarm and actually disarming someone else are very different things. One is doable but doesn't accomplish much; the other is just not doable.

B A Patty said at August 7, 2003 9:27 PM:

I doubt the Chinese would offer us a deal on those terms, or that we'd accept one. What I do expect is that, when China is ready to go after Taiwan, there will be a gradual heating up of the area during which increasingly plain signs are given to us that interference in their takeover of Taiwan would result in non-enforcement of any sanctions on DPRK "shipments." We will have to fold on the question unless we're prepared to take on a nuclear DPRK and also a nuclear PRC--which we aren't, and never will be.

After Taiwan, Chinese expansion into the sea island chains--which their own white papers say is their goal--will include a similar method. The loss of Asia wouldn't be the result of a treaty, but of PRC exploitation of this power relationship: the need to keep DPRK nukes out of terrorist hands is simply going to be much more important to us than influence in Asia. They'll be able to use that as leverage against us whenever they feel the need to push to the breaking point, as they will feel is necessary on Taiwan.

I think everyone I met in China eventually got around to asking me about Taiwan, and whether I thought the USA would fight for it. Well--whether or not we will, China will.

No, I think we'll get little in trade for Asia, except what we usually get from China: vague promises and treaties they don't really keep. I just think that we won't be able to cut a better deal than that.

Randall Parker said at August 7, 2003 9:27 PM:

VK, you called for the US to denuclearise. If the US did that and called for universal disarmament its call would not be heeded.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at August 7, 2003 9:36 PM:

Randall, in answer to your concern about the uranium enrichment program...

As you know, uranium enrichment is much harder than plutonium separation. I would be very surprised if the North Koreans have gotten very far with it.

As far as cooperation with Iran... this has been confirmed. It truly is an axis of evil. And Iran is indeed enriching uranium - we have proof of that.

This, of course, just makes it all that more complicated. We need to stop Iran ASAP, but somehow without angering their population, if possible.

However, an attack against Yongbyon would probably still have been in order. If it didn't stop their production, it certainly would have eliminated the known material for a bunch of nukes. It also would have been a very strong signal to both North Korea and China that we were serious and not distracted by Iraq.

This is really a tough problem - especially with Iran in the mix. And we never know when Pakistan might suddenly collapse and be taken over by the Islamists, although I suspect that would lead to an immediate nuclear war with India.

I think we are in the early stages of a world war. We need a much larger army (for simultaneous conquest and occupation of potentially Iran, Pakistan (what's left of it), Korea and Libya, and the willingness to take much more brutal actions where required. I don't think we will have the political will for any of this until the first nuke goes off in the US!

Do you or any other reader have any idea what our current deterrent policy is for terrorist nuclear attacks? Do we nuke every suspect state? Do we have a policy?

I just hope Dick Cheney stays out of D.C., because I am afraid it will not be there for many more years!

Randall Parker said at August 7, 2003 11:42 PM:

B A, If North Korea goes nuclear we should repay the Chinese by helping Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and South Korea go nuclear. Then let the Chinese try to expand.

John, But once the uranium and is enriched it is easier to make a bomb with enriched uranium than with enriched plutonium. How many centrifuges did the Norks get from Pakistan? When Uranium is being enriched is there any emission generated that is measurable the way Krypton 85 emissions indicate plutonium enrichment is being done?

I doubt we have a policy on what to do when a US city gets nuked by terrorists.

johnh said at August 9, 2003 6:08 AM:

I'm going to give everybody the full benefit of my undiluted ignorance. (I can imagine your joy)

1) I just cannot believe the Bush--or anyone else--expects to solve the NK problem with negotiations. Only a war can resolve this problem.

2) Bush is just stalling. The atmospherics about negotiating with NK are no more that that: atmospherics. I cannot know for sure what Bush is waiting for, but I can make a few guesses:

a) Too many troops are engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq. He needs to pull one or two divisions out of Iraq. And there isn’t enough time to generate two new divisions (thanks Clinton!)
b) Bush is waiting until after the 2004 election. The second Korean war will be much nastier than Gulf War II. (Of course I expected that Gulf War II to be a bloody mess and I was—fortunately—wrong about that.)

Patrick said at August 11, 2003 4:16 PM:


If, as BA Patty logically deduces, a nuclear NK means the conquest of Taiwan, it is logical that Taiwan should attack and destroy NKs nuclear facilities, and probably with covert Japanese help. Is there any reason that Taiwan should not do this? It doesn't require an invasion, just airstrikes or commando raids. And if the NKs retaliate by lobbing some shells into SK, well damn.


Randall Parker said at August 11, 2003 6:03 PM:

Why wouldn't Taiwan just make its own nukes? Taiwan has the technical and scientific depth and the money to do so in short order. Does anyone doubt their ability to make every needed component? They'd need to get uranium or plutonium somehow. But I would bet they could find a way to do so.


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