Kim Dae Jung (1924-2009, president 1998-2003) was elected the president of South Korea In December 1997, on his fourth try. Sometimes referred to as "Korea's Mandela" and know to Koreans as "DJ," he was a fixture of the Korean opposition for decades, spent large chunks of his life in prison or under house arrest and reportedly faced imminent death five times. As president, Kim Dae Jung led South Korea out of a financial crisis, elevated his country’s position on the international stage and began reconciliation with North Korea. In 2000, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: “Kim Dae Jung was an extraordinary figure in South Korea's emergence from autocratic rule to a flourishing democracy who won international acclaim for his efforts to win over the communist North. Once sentenced to death and the target of assassination attempts during the country's early years under autocratic rule” Kim is best known abroad for his historic handshake and embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000, at the first summit meeting of the leaders of the two countries on the divided peninsula. The meeting was the culmination of the "Sunshine Policy" that won Kim the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize — his idea of prodding the North forward with the promise of incentives and reducing the strain of eventual unification through economic integration. But he was forced to watch his efforts at rapprochement slip away as relations with the North deteriorated sharply... At home, it was his relentless struggle against South Korea's authoritarian leaders that made his name.” [Source: Jon Herskovitz, Reuters, Aug 18, 2009]

According to “Columbia Encyclopedia”: Kim Dae Jung was a “prodemocracy dissident during the country's period of military dictatorship.” When he was president “the economy began to recover slowly from the effect of the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis in 1999, and economic reforms promoted sustained growth. Kim worked to open relations with the North... Subsequent progress in inter-Korean relations, however, was slow, leading many in the South to feel that too many concessions had been made. Kim Dae Jung's government was hurt by a series of corruption scandals in 2001 and 2002, some of which involved the president's family. The government suffered further embarrassment in 2002 when two nominees for prime minister were rejected by the national assembly. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Kim Dae Jung “survived a death sentence and an assassination attempt by military dictators before winning the South Korean presidency” and “was the first opposition leader to take power in South Korea.” U.S. President Barrack Obama called Kim “a courageous champion of democracy and human rights.” Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Soongsil University in Seoul told the New York Times that Kim “risked his life to build and lead a political movement that played a crucial role in establishing a dynamic democratic system in the Republic of Korea” and had broken “longstanding taboos in South Korea....He led the liberals to the fore of South Korean politics after decades of conservative rule, and he changed North Korea’s status among South Koreans, from an enemy to be vilified to someone that can coexist with the South and can be engaged.” But Mr. Kim “never overcame the limits” of an old-style South Korean political boss who had depended on and stoked regionalism and “privately owned political parties,” which he created and demolished for his own political gains, Mr. Kang said. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “Kim is not the first leader to have triumphed over dictatorship only to fumble the chance when he achieved a democratic mandate. There was a strong desire for more radical reform, but a political system based on co-option, deformed by partisanship, backed by a persistent elite, proved too strong...His narrow power base in the south-west, and reliance on the Korean disease of faction-building, thwarted any real transformation of the political culture. Yet Kim's story remains one of unusual persistence and bravery in the face of death, and he will be remembered as a moral hero of modern Korea. “ [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

Kim Dae Jung's Early Life

The second son of a farmer, Kim Dae Jung was born on December 13, 1925 on Haeuido Island in Cholla province, a region known for its rebellious spirit. The island where Kim was raised didn’t get electricity until the 1960s and had only 10,000 people and no paved roads. His unwed mother ran a small shop and tavern serving workers who extracted salt from sea water. Nothing of the house he lived in remains. Cholla Province in the southwest was disparaged by other presidents who came from rival Kyongsang Province in the southeast. [Source: New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters]

Little is known about Kim’s earl life. His opponents claim he was born out of wedlock and was raised by a man who was not his real father. Kim has also given various birth dates over the years. One researcher said he discovered that his true birthday was January 6, 1924. His birthdate was changed by his parents so he could avoid Japanese military service.

When he was young, Kim’s parents moved to the town of Mokpo so he could attend better schools beginning in the fourth grade. Recalling his childhood, Kim said, his family was "somewhat better off than our neighbors. he had a cow, and the only phonograph in town. I barley survived birth and was very frail, very timid as a small boy."

Kim grew up during the Japanese occupation and was forced to take a Japanese name and speak Japanese at his schools. He was reportedly a good student fond of Cholla Classical songs but occasionally go into scrapes with Japanese students and authorities for his nationalist views. Recalling those days he said, we "were forced to bow ritually to the picture of the Japanese emperor each day. If we were caught so much as muttering Korean, we were punished, sometimes severely." Kim never received a university degree. After attending a vocational high school, he ran a shipping company to support his family and a newspaper.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: When Kim was 10, his father moved to the mainland port of Mokpo, where he ran a small inn – apparently so that his son, already showing signs of talent, could go to a good school. According to some sources, he was born on 3 December 1925, but others suggest that his date of birth was falsified (and that he was really born nearly two years earlier, on 6 January 1924) to avoid conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army. The most daring act mentioned in official biographies is the writing of a short essay criticising the Japanese that led to him being "removed as class captain". After graduation, he got a job at a shipping company and, after the Korean war, ran his own small business. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

“Kim was not tainted by collaboration, unlike many other postwar Korean leaders. Growing up in the impoverished south-west, he also had a better understanding of ordinary Koreans. He was, as the U.S. journalist Don Oberdorfer has noted, "an outsider to the mainstream of Korean elite society. To my surprise, I learned in 1987 that despite his fame and his important role in so many historic political developments, many leading Koreans had never met him in person."

Kim Dae Jung's Early Political Career

After World War II, Kim served briefly as a propaganda chief for a pro-Communist group, an association that would haunt him for rest of his career. "I did not know clearly at the time," he later said, "what was communism and what was nationalism...I joined various groups...I was deeply curios about Communism. I studied with concern as to whether communism would be a useful doctrine capable of bring independence and happiness to our people. Finally I cut off all ties with communism since I considered national independence as our supreme goal while communists...gave loyalty to the Soviet Union."

During the occupation of he U.S. military between 1945 and 1948, Kim was arrested on several occasions on suspicions of organized pro-Communist rallies and imprisoned in U.S. military jails. Kim claimed that the charges leveled against him were unfounded. Kim didn't fit the bill of a Communist sympathizer. To the contrary he was a budding young capitalist who owned a shipping firm and an local newspaper at the age of 26. By the late 1950s he was bankrupt.

In 1954 Kim made his first unsuccessful bid for election to the national assembly. He finally won a seat in a byelection in 1961, just days before the assembly was closed down in the military coup led by Park Chung-hee. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “On his fifth try, he was elected to the National Legislature. A week later, Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee staged a coup, the beginning of his 18-year iron-fisted rule....A skilled rabble-rouser who spoke for political freedom and for the downtrodden, Mr. Kim quickly emerged as an opposition leader and General Park’s nemesis, especially after he won 45 percent of the vote running against the incumbent dictator in his first presidential try in 1971.”

Kim Dae Jung’s Character and Family

Kim Dae Jung was a devout lifelong Catholic. He often worked from 6:00am to midnight. With the little free time he had he liked to read. While he was in prison he read a lot. He reads Korean, English and Japanese. Among the people he admires are Abraham Lincoln the Chinese philosopher Mencius, Martin Luther and Chun Bong Joon, a Korean revolutionary and modernizer.

Kim Dae Jung wrote that “forgiveness and magnanimity” lie at the core of his personal and political philosophy. To teach himself to be a better person, he wrote in his autobiography, he put up with insults and humiliations even though he found it unbearable to do so and through this process he would better understand his enemies.

Kim Dae Jung’s was married twice. His first wife died of an overdose of drugs when Kim was down and out an bankrupt in 1959 and he was forced to raise his two sons with the help of his family. His second wife Lee Hi Ho was one of South Korea’s first scholars and was a long-time women’s rights activist. She was educated in the United States. They were married in 1961 and had one son.

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: Kim was a devout Catholic who was an inspiring speaker in both Korean and English. He shuffled when he walked due to injuries suffered to his legs in an assassination attempt in the 1970s when a truck rammed his car off a road. [Source: Jon Herskovitz, Reuters, Aug 18, 2009]

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: ““Kim's concept of democracy was grounded, as he often explained, in the ancient philosophy of China's Mengzi (Mencius) and the example of Abraham Lincoln, somewhat remote models for the 21st century. Once in the presidential Blue House, he was accused of himself becoming too remote.”

Kim Dae Jung's Challenges Park Chung Hee

Kim won his National Assembly seat during the brief period of democracy in 1961. He said he was motivated to become involved in politics by the "suffering of people caused by bad politics" under Syngman Rhee. Kim made a mark for himself during the Park Chung Hee era as a firebrand speaker and powerful dissident. The Guinness Book of World Record listed him as giving the longest speech (9 hours and 17 minutes before the Korean National Assembly). In 1967, he ran again and won after foiling election-rigging efforts by Park supporters.

As the military rule in South Korea stiffened, Kim emerged as a young leader of dissidents in parliament. John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “In the elections of 1963, held by Park under US pressure, Kim won again and soon became spokesman for the Democratic party – later merged with others to form the New Democratic party (NDP). He denounced Park's plans to revise the constitution to serve a third term, and in 1971 became the NDP's presidential candidate...When Park declared the Yushin constitution in 1972, giving himself unlimited power for life, Kim sought support in the U.S. and Japan.” [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The harsher General Park’s rule became, the more Mr. Kim’s popularity grew — especially in Cholla, where he was able to gain up to 95 percent of the votes in elections. It was this regional loyalty that allowed him to make a comeback after each of his three failed attempts for the presidency.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

Almost on a whim, Kim decided to run for president in 1971 and was stunned by the number of people that came to see him in Seoul. Park narrowly won, but some say only because he used a host of dirty tricks to steal it away from Kim, who took 46 percent of the popular vote. After that stunning election outcome, Park revised the Constitution to guarantee himself victory in future elections. The next year, Park declared martial law and Kim was constantly harassed by the KCIA (Park’s infamous intelligence agency) and Park's thugs.

Kim Dae Jung's Prison Time Close Calls with Death

Kim Dae Jung under house arrest or in exile for 10 years under th leaders Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan. He spent six years in jail and 26 months in exile, and was placed under house arrest 55 times for a total seven years. While in prison he read books in English, Japanese and Korean. He learned Japanese in school and was taught English by a Peace Corp volunteer and couldn't really speak it until he was 50. According to The Guardian:Most of his prison writings, which movingly display both his Christian faith and his love for his family, date from the Chun Doo Hwan period in the early 1980s.

Kim survived three assassination attempts and "narrowly escaped from moments of imminent death five times": 1) Korean War; 2) truck accident orchestrated by Park Chung Hee; 3) the kidnaping described below; 4) death sentence in jail. I'm not sure what the fifth time is.

In 1950, during the Korean War, Kim was seized by North Korean troops and was sentenced to death for reportedly abusing workers. He spent several months in jail with little food and was prepared to go before a firing squad but was saved by an Allied counterattack that drove off his North Korean captors.

A months after the 1971 elections Kim's car was rammed by a 14-ton truck and he "flew into the air like a glider." Two people were killed but Kim survived, barely, and still walks with a limp from the injuries he sustained. Later the truck was traced to the government and most people feel that the KCIA and Park himself were probably involved in a plot to kill him.

Kim Dae Jung and the 1973 Kidnaping

In August 1973, Kim Dae Jung was kidnaped from a Tokyo hotel by the six KCIA agents who stuck a chloroform-soaked cloth in his mouth, blindfolded him, and tied him up. He was placed on a speed boat in Osaka and delivered to a freighter at sea. Out at sea, Kim was wrapped in a shroud and attached to concrete blocks as his captors prepared to throw him off a ship. "I thought I would die in three or four minutes," Kim later told Newsweek. “OK, my painful life would be over I told myself. Jesus Christ stood beside me. I gripped Jesus Christ's sleeve. I appealed: God I have so much to do for my people."

A couple of days after the kidnapping, he was dumped on the streets of Seoul near his house. The United States had reportedly been informed of the kidnaping and appealed to Park not to harm Kim. There were reports that a plane appeared near the ship as Kim was prepared to be thrown in the sea and dropped a flare as a warning, but this doesn’t appear to be true. It has also been said that just as he was about to be dropped in the sea a U.S. military helicopter made a low pass over the vessel. There were also reports that Henry Kissinger engineered the rescue. That is also not true. Most of the work was done by Philip Habib, who was then American ambassador in Seoul. On his own, he said the United States “deplored” the abduction and called it an “act of terrorism.”

Kim was kidnapped just days before he was to set up a coalition of Japan-based South Korean organizations to work for democratization in South Korea. Then 47, he was a serious challenger to Park's dictatorship. Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: “Two years after his run for the presidency, Kim was abducted by South Korean secret agents. Chained and blindfolded, he suspected he was to be dumped in the sea and made to look like he died at the hands of North Korean agents. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Japanese officials learned of the plot and the United States sent a plane to find the boat. With the kidnappers caught in the act, Kim's life was spared and he was taken home and placed under house arrest. "He felt the Americans intervened to save his life. It was a key event in his life that also deepened his religious faith," said Michael Breen, author of "The Koreans." [Source: Jon Herskovitz, Reuters, Aug 18, 2009]

Upon returning to Seoul Kim wrote, “My wife received me with utter amazement. I limped through the door, slightly dazed and disoriented, with rope burns on my wrists and ankles.” His eldest son was in tears. He said, “Father, you’re not the only one responsible for our country. Why do you have to take everything on yourself.” Kim spent the next three years under house arrest, and somehow still managed to carry out pro-democracy activities which earned him an eight year prison term. He wasn't freed until after Park's assassination in 1979.

Park Chung Hee Approved the 1973 Kidnapping of Kim Dae Jung, Panel Finds

In 2007, a a government panel said that Park Chung Hee gave a tacit nod to a 1973 secret operation to kidnap Kim Dae Jung. The New York Times reported: “The fact-finding panel of the National Intelligence Service, the South Korean spy agency, also said that it could not rule out the possibility that the former president, Park Chung Hee, may have directly ordered the kidnapping of Kim, then his main political rival. "It is judged that there was at least an implicit permission" from Park, the panel said in its investigation report. [Source: New York Times, October 24, 2007]

“The report marked the first time the South Korean government had acknowledged any involvement by Park in the kidnapping, although many South Koreans have believed that the military-backed leader had been behind it. The NIS panel was set up in 2004 as part of a government drive to shed light on long-running suspicions involving the spy agency, which former authoritarian rulers of South Korea are accused of having used for political purposes including oppressing dissidents.

The panel, however, did not draw a clear conclusion on whether the kidnapping was ultimately aimed at killing Kim. Any U.S. role in Kim's survival was unclear. But Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador who worked as an intelligence officer in Seoul at the time, was quoted as saying in a 1998 newspaper interview that the U.S. ambassador at the time had visited Park and asked for Kim's release.

The abduction briefly chilled South Korean relations with Japan. But Tokyo later agreed to a South Korean effort at a political settlement of the case, saying that it expected Seoul to get to the bottom of the incident. The fact-finding panel blamed Japan for cooperating with South Korea to cover up the kidnapping.

John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “The details of this dramatic and near-fatal episode remain obscure. It is possible that the role of the US, which had backed Park's coup but now balked at the murder of his opponent, still requires discretion... The ship was intercepted by a plane and/or helicopter – presumed to belong to the U.S. forces – conveying the message that Kim must be kept alive. He was taken to Seoul and dumped in a street a week later. He was then placed under house arrest, remaining there or in prison until the assassination of Park in 1979 – at the hands of Kim Jae-kyu, the KCIA chief. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

Kim Dae Jung and Chun Do Hwan

Park Chung Hee was murdered by his own spy chief in 1979. His successor, Chun Doo Hwan, took power in a military coup. His junta pressed trumped-up sedition charges against Kim Dae Jung in 1980 over a pro-democracy uprising — the Kwangju Massacre, which left at least 200 people dead — in Kim's home province. After a six minute trial as part of a military tribunal, Kim was sentenced to death for attempting to overthrow the government.

On his arrest, Kim said: "I was a prisoner in the basement of the KCIA headquarters. I was isolated for 60 days, often stripped naked and questioned for hours on end. I could couldn't tell night from day. Often I could hear horrid sounds of torture nearby."

United States officials persuading the Chun Doo Hwan government not to execute Kim in return for a meeting with incoming U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the White House. Kim was allowed to get medical treatment in the U.S. In 1982, Kim was exiled to the United States, where he became a fellow at Harvard University and human right celebrity that hobnobbed with the likes of Jane Fonda.

Kim returned to South Korea in 1986 and was immediately arrested at the airport and literally carried away by police that tackled him and seized him as if they were playing American football. He was placed under house arrest and campaigned for democracy by slipping messages into cigarette filters carried by his driver.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, an army of police and intelligence agents were hired to spy on him. The security agency secretly purchased five houses and buildings around his house for observation purposes. Agents set up checkpoints in alleys around his houses, snooped through his garbage, and monitored all the foreign journalists that came to see him.

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote: “Kim emerged as one of the most fervent speakers in favour of democracy and an end to authoritarian, military rule in South Korea.” His death “sentence was later changed to life in prison, then to a 20-year term. In December 1982, the prison term was suspended under a deal” with the Reagan administration that allowed Kim to board a plane to the United States in 1982. Kim returned to South Korea in 1985, escorted by American politicians, but was placed under house arrest. At this time South Korea “was still under the authoritarian rule of Chun Doo-hwan, the former military officer whose government sentenced Kim to death. Chun would later be sentenced to death but received a pardon from Kim.”[Source: Jon Herskovitz, Reuters, Aug 18, 2009, New York Times]

Three Kims

Politics is the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s was dominated by the "three Kims" — Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil. The first two Kims had been fixtures in the opposition scene in Korea for a long time. Kim Jong Pil founded a repressive intelligence agency under Park Chung Hee — the president of South Korea from 1961 to 1979 — and played a major part in the kidnapping of Kim Dae Jung from a Tokyo hotel and the plot to kill him by throwing him off a ship.

Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam lost the election in 1987 because they split the opposition vote and Roh Tae Woo won. In 1992, Kim Young Sam joined the ruling party and won the presidential election that year partly because of false reports that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung supported Kim Dae Jung. After losing Kim Dae Jung vowed he was through with politics. He then became president in 1998

In 1993, Kim Young Sam became the first civilian president of South Korea's new democratic era. In 1979, he became the new leader of the New Democratic Party and began to challenge the government of Park Chung Hee —who ruled for 18 years from 1961 to 1979. He announced to the foreign press his readiness to meet with Kim Il Song, the North Korean president, to discuss matters relating to unification and delivered a scathing attack on the government in the National Assembly. He argued that the government had been in power too long and had been clearly discredited by the elections; that Emergency Measure Number Nine suffocated peoples' freedom and was clearly unconstitutional; that Seoul had colluded with hoodlums to assault the New Democratic Party headquarters and to harass him; that the suppression of human rights had become an international disgrace; that the people should be permitted to elect their own president through direct elections and be allowed to live without fear; and that a fair distribution of wealth should be permitted without government interference. The government immediately retaliated and ousted Kim from the National Assembly. In a show of solidarity, all opposition members of the National Assembly resigned on October 13, 1979.*

Kim Jong Pil was a relative of Park Chung Hee. A military man and retired colonel, he was and one of the original planners of the coup that brought Park Chung Hee to power. He was a founder of the infamous KCIA and extended its power to economic and foreign affairs as its first director.

On May 17 1980, the military regime led by Gen. Chun Doo Hwan declared martial law, banned political activity, shut down universities and arrested opposition leaders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam and scores of other politicians. The arrest of Kim Dae Jung and other arch enemies of Park was to be expected as soon as the military stepped in on May 17. But the arrest of Kim Jong Pil and other people who had been influential under Park came as a total surprise.

Kim ran again for president in 1987 and 1992, losing both times. John Gittings wrote in The Guardian: “By the mid-1980s the ruling elite had become less cohesive, society less docile and Korea's new business community impatient with the restrictions of military rule, while student protests dramatised the demand for democracy. Kim returned to Korea and though repeatedly subject to house arrest, finally regained his political rights in 1987. In the presidential elections, the first since 1971, the elite's candidate Roh Tae Woo won easily over a divided opposition. Kim's failure to unite with his rival opposition leader, Kim Young Sam, revealed a weakness for factionalism in the new politics and Kim Young Sam would form an opportunistic coalition with Roh in 1990, winning the next presidency in December 1992. However, Kim Dae Jung's 34 percent vote, in which he gained 1.8 million more votes than in 1987, placed him in a strong position.” After his last loss, Kim announced his retirement from politics and headed to Cambridge to study German unification, saying he wanted to devote his life to unifying the Koreas. [Source: John Gittings, The Guardian, 18 August 2009]

Kim Dae Jung and the 1997 Election

On the fourth attempt Kim Dae Jung won the election for president in 1997 with 40.3 percent of the vote. His opponent Lee Hoi Chang took 39.1 percent. He wouldn’t have won, many have argued, if the third party candidate, Rhee In Jee, didn’t run. Kim had earlier lost in a party run off to Lee but decided to run as an independent. The turn out was 80.7 percent. Kim ran as a candidate for the National Congress for New Politics Party.

Kim Dae Jung stressed his experience while his critics questioned his health and promises to add 2.5 million jobs and raise the per capita income to US$30,000 in a few years. On charges that he was too old to be president, Kim Dae Jung said: "In American age, I'm 71. But for 6 years I was in prison, and for 10 years I was held under house arrest and exile, so those 16 years should be deducted. Then I'm only 55.”

Kim Dae Jung had the political savvy to form an alliance with Kim Jong Pil, the man who founded the intelligence agency in 1973 that kidnaped Kim Dae Jung from a Tokyo hotel and tried to kill him by throwing him off a ship.

Kim publicly declared his own worth and forced other senior officials to do the same. Kim accepted US$2.6 million from discredited former president Roh Tae Woo and was accused of illegally stashing away US$40 million from former campaigns in family accounts and using the money in the 1997 campaign. The charges were quicky forgotten, when it was reasoned that all politicians did similar things.

The 1997 election took place in the midst of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “Eventually, it was not the powerful friends he made in Washington, and not even the unconditional support he commanded in Cholla, that helped him reach the presidential Blue House in 1998, his fourth run. The Asian financial crisis helped him gain the presidency, as South Koreans voted against the often corrupt conservative establishment that had ruled South Korea almost continuously since the Korean War. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 18, 2009]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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