From an early date, Korean political culture is characterised by isolationism and a strong desire to maintain independence. China, though treated with deference, is kept at arm's length, and relations with other neighbours are discouraged. Among Westerners, Korea comes to be known as the Hermit Kingdom.
Nevertheless, the country is unable to stop intrusions by its neighbours. Korea is made a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and turned into a full colony of the growing Japanese Empire in 1910. By the 1940s there are about 700,000 Japanese in Korea, mostly working in government service. While the Japanese policies result in substantial economic growth, Koreans become second-class citizens in their own land. More background.
Born on 15 April 1912 in Mangyongdae, in the Pyongyang Province of northern Korea, into what was probably a middle-class family. His birth name is Kim Song Ju. He is the eldest of three sons. Kim's younger brother dies early. His youngest brother serves with him until the mid-1970s. Kim's father is a Christian and Kim attends church throughout his teens.
In 1919 Kim's parents leave Japanese-occupied Korea for Manchuria, where Kim attends a Chinese school. Kim moves back to Pyongyang in 1923 for further schooling. He returns to Manchuria in 1925 and continues his education.
Kim's father dies in 1926. His mother dies in 1932.
1929 - In October, while attending Yuwen Middle School in Jilin, Manchuria, Kim is jailed for belonging to a student political group led by the South Manchurian Communist Youth Association. When he is released in May the following year he joins a unit of the Anti-Japanese United Army operating in Manchuria's Jilin Province. In 1932 he is made the unit's commander.
1931 - The anti-Japanese resistance strengthens after Japan invades Manchuria in 1931. Over 200,000 Chinese and Koreans join guerrilla groups, though the number quickly drops to several thousand after a bloody Japanese counterinsurgency campaign.
Kim emerges as a significant resistance leader during this time, commanding a division of the Anti-Japanese United Army. At its height, Kim's division numbers about 300. The Japanese consider him to be so effective they form a special unit to track him down. It is during this phase that he adopts the name Kim Il Sung.
1937 - The Second Sino-Japanese War breaks out on 7 July following a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing. Now on a war footing, Japan cracks down on its colony in Korea. Koreans are required to speak Japanese and take Japanese names.
1940 - Kim's first wife, Kim Hye Sun, is captured by the Japanese on 6 April and later killed by them.
1941 - Kim is reputedly the only surviving leader of the Anti-Japanese United Army left in Manchuria. In March, he and about 120 of his men flee to Siberia, where they are detained by Soviet authorities and forced to join a brigade of the Soviet Army that has been assigned to intelligence gathering activities in Manchuria.
Kim is given command of a battalion in the brigade, and he and his men are trained in espionage, radio communications and sabotage. They also receive political instruction. Kim and his men work with the Soviets until the end of the war.
Kim's second wife, Kim Jong Suk, gives birth to a son, Kim Jong Il, on 16 February 1941. The child is born in an army camp in Siberia. (Some sources give the date of Kim Jong Il's birth as 16 February 1942.)
As part of the personality cult that is created around Kim Il Sung and his son, it is later claimed that Kim Jong Il was born in a log cabin on the slopes of North Korea's highest and most sacred peak, Paektu-san (White Head Mountain), on the border with Manchuria.
To amplify the messianic nature of the myth, it is said that a double rainbow, a bright star in the sky and a swallow descending from heaven heralded his birth.
Kim Jong Suk bears three more children to Kim Il Sung, two boys and a girl. However, both boys die young, one in a swimming accident and the other during a difficult birth that also kills Kim Jong Suk. Kim marries his third wife, Kim Song Ae, in 1962. It is believed the couple have four children.
The decision to attack the US proves fatal for the Japanese. After initial naval and battlefield successes, an overstretched and increasingly desperate Japanese military is slowly driven back.
1945 - The US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 respectively. Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrenders unconditionally on 15 August 1945, ending both the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The Korean Peninsula is divided along the 38th parallel into two military occupation zones, with the US administering the south and the Soviet Union the north. Though initially intended as a temporary measure to facilitate the surrender of Japanese troops, the partition becomes permanent as the Cold War sets in.
North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is formed under Soviet sponsorship. South Korea, or the Republic of Korea (ROK), receives backing from the US.
Kim and about 40 of his partisans return to Pyongyang on 19 September aboard a Soviet warship. Kim has been selected by the Far East command of the Soviet secret police to take charge of the formation of a provisional government in the North.
1946 - The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) is formed on 28 August through a merger of the Communist Party of North Korea and the New Democratic Party of Korea (led by Kim Tubong).
Under the joint leadership of the Kim Il Sung and Kim Tubong, the KWP begins to introduce a number of reforms to the North, including an eight-hour working day, equality of the sexes and suppression of religion.
Land and wealth formerly belonging to the Japanese or to enemies of the regime are confiscated and redistributed, industry is nationalised and Soviet-style economic planning is initiated.
1947 - In February the People's Committee of North Korea is formally established as the government of the North. Kim heads the committee. Political power rests with the Supreme People's Assembly, which is also headed by Kim.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and North Korean authorities refuse to comply with a United Nations (UN) resolution calling for a general election to determine the government of a unified Korea. Despite this refusal, elections go ahead in the South where, on 15 August 1948, the Republic of Korea is established.
1948 - The DPRK declares its independence on 9 September. Kim is head of state and government, as well as head of the Central Committee of the KWP. At one point he also controls the military. Opponents within the party are purged to secure his absolute rule.
Both the Republic of Korea in the South and the DPRK in the North claim to be the only legitimate government on the Korean Peninsula.
1949 - The US decides that South Korea lies outside its vital defence perimeter and begins to pull its troops out of the region. Kim subsequently starts planning for a preemptive war of reunification, believing that the US troop withdrawal is a prelude to an invasion of the North by South Korean forces.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin vetoes a plan by Kim to launch an attack but does provide aid to assist with the build-up of a military force capable of countering the South Korean troops massing on the border at the 38th parallel. When low-level clashes begin to occur the border is fortified.
Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-Tung also tells Kim that the time is not right for a preemptive attack, advising that he wait until the Chinese communists win the fight against their Guomindang nationalist rivals for control of China.
1950 - Kim spends April in Moscow attempting to convince Stalin and the Soviet authorities that he can win a war with the South. Finally, Stalin agrees. The following month, during a visit by Kim to Beijing, Mao also gives the go-ahead.
The Korean War, known in the North as the Fatherland Liberation War or the Great War for the Liberation of the Motherland, begins on 25 June when up to 90,000 North Korean troops march into the South. Kim is head of the military committee coordinating the action as well as supreme commander of the Korean People's Army.
The United Nations condemns the attack. The UN Security Council passes a resolution demanding that the North Koreans withdraw. When they refuse, the UN General Assembly authorises military action against the North.
The Soviet-backed North Korean troops are initially successful. The South Korean capital, Seoul, falls in three days. All but a small corner in the southeast of the country is seized within a month. However, final victory eludes the North Koreans.
The situation is quickly reversed is early September when a US-led UN Command force launches a surprise counteroffensive behind the North Korean lines then drives Kim's army back almost to the border with China. The North Koreans avoid a total rout only with the aid of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army, a massive force numbering almost three million troops, that is dispatched by Mao. By early 1951 the opposing forces are again facing off over the 38th parallel.
The UN intervention is the body's first collective action since its formation in 1945. The Command force is comprised of troops from 16 member nations (Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Columbia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and the US) and medical support from five others (Denmark, India, Italy, Norway and Sweden).
1953 - The Korean War ends on 27 July when the North, the UN Command and China sign an armistice. Neither the US nor South Korea sign the agreement, though both adhere to its provisions. A 2 km-wide demilitarised zone is established along the border.
The war has claimed up to two million civilian casualties.
North Korean troop casualties are estimated at about 867,000, including 317,000 dead, 304,000 wounded and 102,000 missing in action (Chinese sources put the figure at 520,000).
Chinese casualties are estimated at about 953,000, including 423,000 dead, 487,000 wounded and 22,000 missing. (Chinese sources put the casualty figure at between 431,000 and one million, including 145,000 to 152,000 dead, 26,000 captured or missing, 260,000 to 383,000 wounded and 450,000 hospitalised.)
South Korea has suffered 58,127 combat deaths and 175,743 wounded. (Chinese sources claim 415,000 deaths and 429,000 wounded.)
US casualties include 54,246 dead and 103,284 wounded. Casualties for the other countries under the UN Command include 3,322 dead and 11,949 wounded.
Throughout Korea, but especially in the North, much of the basic infrastructure has been destroyed. Over three years, more bombs have been dropped on the North than were released across the entire Pacific theatre during the Second World War.
Under the armistice, an international conference is convened at Geneva in April 1954 to try to find a political solution to the conflict. However, the conference ends without agreement or progress after seven weeks of futile debate. To this day, the North and the South technically remain at war.
Meanwhile, senior leaders within the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) attempt to overthrow Kim in September 1953. Twelve alleged conspirators are charged with planning a coup and spying for the US. At a Soviet-style show trial, 10 are convicted and sentenced to death and two receive long prison sentences.
A major purge of the KWP follows, with members originating from South Korea being expelled. Further purges are launched in the late 1950s, when the axe falls on the pro-Chinese and pro-Russian factions, and in the late 1960s, when the military is placed under the spotlight. Thousands of "counter-revolutionaries" are executed, often in public, and tens of thousands more are expelled from the KWP.
The so-called Songbun ("ingredient") system is introduced to categorise the population of North Korea into classes based on family background and perceived loyalty to the regime. Access to services, housing, education, employment and party membership is dependent on ranking within the system. Once rank is assigned it cannot be altered and is inherited through the paternal line. Three main classes are established: core, basic and complex (wavering and hostile). Freedom of movement is restricted for all classes. The state determines where its citizens can live and when they can travel. The most favourable locations, such as Pyongyang, are reserved for those with high status. Those with low status are moved to the provinces.
The post-war period also sees the establishment by Kim of a work camp system similar to that used in the Soviet Union for the detention of "political" prisoners. It is estimated that by the end of the century between 150,000 and 200,000 political and criminal prisoners are held in six or seven sprawling complexes called kwan-li-so (political penal-labour colonies).
Most inmates face life sentences, many for "crimes" such as reading a foreign newspaper, singing a South Korean pop song or "insulting the authority" of the North Korean leadership.
Kim's decree that "factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations" condemns up to three generations of the families of political prisoners to life imprisonment without trial.
Over the coming decades stories of the conditions in the camps begin to emerge.
On 22 October 2003 The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea releases a report documenting "a vast and inhumane prison system for political prisoners" in the North. Titled 'The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps', the report is based on interviews with 31 North Korean exiles, including escaped former prisoners, former prison guards and a former prison-system official.
According to the report, "All the prison facilities are characterised by very large numbers of deaths in detention from forced, hard labour accompanied by deliberate starvation-level food rations. Incarceration of Koreans repatriated from China includes routine torture during interrogation and the practice of forced abortion or infanticide inflicted upon babies borne by pregnant repatriates."
In 2014 a United Nations Commission of Inquiry estimates that "hundreds of thousands of people have perished in the prison camps since their establishment".
1955 - Kim develops a Marxist-Leninist political ideology that emphasises the need for autonomy and self-reliance. Called Juche (also spelt Chuch'e), or Kim Il Sung Thought, the ideology demands total loyalty to the paramount leader and stresses the benefits of sacrifice, austerity, discipline, dedication, unity and patriotism.
However, while preaching self-reliance, Kim begins to travel regularly to the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe to seek loans and aid for the reconstruction of North Korean's shattered economy and infrastructure.
At the same time as North Koreans are being encouraged to follow the "Juche idea", a personality cult is created around Kim, in the mould of the cults created around Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-Tung in China.
Kim is described as the "iron-willed, ever-victorious commander", the "great sun and great man", the "great leader", the "great father", the "sun of the nation", the "clairvoyant", "the supreme brain of the nation", a "matchless patriot" and "national hero" and "one of the genius leaders of the international communist movement and workers' movement". He comes to be seen by North Koreans as a semi-divine emperor.
The North Korean media, which is entirely state-owned and controlled, ceaselessly promotes a highly fabricated biography of Kim that portrays him as an infallible genius and the driving force behind the resistance to the Japanese and the liberation of the North.
All questioning or dissent is outlawed, as is the practice of any religion other than the worship of Kim Il Sung.
By the late 1980s Kim has erected more than 34,000 monuments to himself. His portrait is displayed in public spaces throughout the country, within every private home and on most articles of clothing. The calendar is recalibrated to begin at the year of Kim's birth (1912), which is called Juche 1. His birthday is declared a national holiday and celebrated in lavish style.
During the celebrations of his 60th birthday 300,000 North Koreans attend the opening of a revolutionary museum in Pyongyang that is fronted by a 21-metre high bronze statue of Kim.
Kim's 70th birthday is commemorated with the unveiling of the Juche Tower and Arch of Triumph. The tower is a larger version of the Washington Monument and features 25,550 blocks of granite, one for each day of the 70 years of Kim's life. The arch is a larger version of Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The personality cult is extended to Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, who is dubbed the Dear Leader and described as "a genius of 10,000 talents", "the morning star", the "central brain".
In 1980 it is formally announced that Kim Jong Il will succeed his father. In 1992, Kim Jong Il is appointed as supreme commander, or "wnsu", of the army. In 1993 he becomes chairman of the National Defence Commission.
Meanwhile, a Soviet-style development program results in economic growth surpassing that in South Korea, a pattern that continues until the late 1970s, when growth rates begin to fall just as foreign debt begins to rise.
A similar scenario develops in the agricultural sector, where collectivisation sees initial increases in production and rural living standards before the situation begins to reverse.
1968 - On 21 January North Korean commandos attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung Hee and other senior government officials. Two days later, the US spy ship Pueblo is seized in international waters by North Korean gunboats. The ship's crew is held until December. In April 1969 a US reconnaissance plane is shot down by North Korean MiG jet fighters.
Many other similar incidents occur over the coming years.
Another unsuccessful assassination attempt is made on South Korean President Park Chung Hee in August 1974. Hee's wife is killed during the attempt.
A North Korean tunnel is discovered under the demilitarised zone in November 1974. The South Korean authorities discover other tunnels in March 1975, October 1978 and March 1990. As many as 17 tunnels are believed to have been constructed.
In August 1976 the Korean Peninsula teeters on the brink of another all-out war after two US military officers are beaten to death by North Korean soldiers as they attempt to chop down a poplar tree within the demilitarised zone.
In October 1983 North Korean agents attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan while he is Rangoon, the capital of Burma. A bomb intended for Chun kills 17 senior South Korean officials and injures 14 others. Four Burmese nationals are also killed and 32 wounded.
A South Korean Airline passenger plane and all 115 people aboard disappear without trace over the Andaman Sea off the coast of Burma on 29 November 1987. The disappearance is attributed to the on-board explosion of a bomb planted by two North Korean agents, who are later arrested, tried and convicted. According to one of the agents, Kim Jong Il ordered the bombing.
In 1988 US Secretary of State James A. Baker III declares "that North Korea is a country which has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism". The State Department places North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
1980 - During the 1980s signs that the North's economy is in trouble become increasingly obvious. By 1986 the North has defaulted on all its loans from free-market countries and its foreign debt has reached US$6 billion. By 2000 the foreign debt is estimated at US$10-12 billion.
At the same time, evidence begins to emerge that agricultural production is falling and the country is slipping towards famine. The regime ignores the signs.
The problems are further compounded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the associated drop in communist aid.
1986 - North Korea joins the nuclear age, commissioning a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, 100 km north of Pyongyang. The North soon begins a program to develop nuclear weapons, using plutonium reprocessed from the reactor's spent fuel rods and extracted from enriched uranium.
In 1993 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) announces that North Korea has probably built at least one nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that North Korea could have enough plutonium for one or two bombs.
In 2003 a CIA assessment finds that "North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests".
North Korea also develops a program to develop, test, deploy and sell ballistic missiles. Missiles are exported to Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. The trade earns the North about US$600 million a year.
1990 - Early in the 1990s reports emerge that food shortages in the North are leading to rioting and the imposition of food rationing. It is estimated that North Korea is about one million tonnes short of grain self-sufficiency each year.
Reports also indicate that the country's industrial sector is in serious decline, with the output of iron, steel, cement and refined oil falling significantly. Factories are said to be closing or operating at well under capacity. Power is available for only a few hours a day, if at all, and the water delivery system ceases to operate.
Nevertheless, North Korea maintains one of the largest armies in the world, with military spending soaking up about 20-25% of gross national product under Kim Il Sung's Songun (Army First) policy.
1994 - Kim Il Sung dies suddenly in his country villa on 8 July from a heart attack "owing to heavy mental strains". His state funeral is held on 18 July and is followed by a three-year-long period of national mourning.
It is later reported that Kim's death occurred during a heated argument with Kim Jong Il.
Suspicions over the circumstances of Kim's death are heightened by reports that Kim Jong Il refused to allow doctors to enter his father's room for an extended period. Further questions are raised by the crash of two out of the five helicopters assigned to fly Kim's corpse to Pyongyang, killing the doctors and bodyguards on board, and by the disappearance without trace of other functionaries.
Kim Jong Il is also reported to have concealed the depth of the country's economic crisis and the extent of its food shortages from his father.
Kim Il Sung's death causes real sorrow among the thoroughly indoctrinated North Korean population. His embalmed body is laid to rest in the Kumsusan presidential palace in Pyongyang, which is converted at a cost of about US$900 million into a memorial for the dead dictator. In death he becomes the Eternal Leader.
1995 - Chronic food shortages are exacerbated by record floods in the summer months. Widespread famine follows. It is estimated that by the year 2000 between 450,000 and two million people have died of starvation and famine-related illnesses. Some reports claim that as many as three million have died.
In 2003 the World Food Program and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) report that chronic malnutrition has left 42% of North Korean children physically stunted and in danger of intellectual impairment.
1997 - Kim Jong Il is named general secretary of the Korean Workers' Party in October. In September 1998 he is reconfirmed as chairman of the National Defence Commission, which is declared to be the "highest office of state". Kim is also supreme commander of the People's Armed Forces.
A new party slogan states that "Kim Il Sung is Kim Jong Il".
Kim Jong Il formally takes over as head of state of North Korea in 2000.
North Korea continues to pursue a nuclear weapons program. The North also continues to develop ballistic missiles.
North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. In 2005 the country acknowledges for the first time that is possesses nuclear weapons. On 9 October 2006 the North announces that it has successfully detonated a nuclear device.
On 25 May 2009 the North claims to have successfully conducted a second underground nuclear test. Seismic monitoring appears to confirm the claim.
In November 2010 it is revealed that the North has built a new uranium enrichment plant.
Reports also indicate that the North has accumulated a stockpile of biological and chemical weapons.
2008 - News that Kim Jong Il has suffered a stroke leaks out from the North at the start of September. Francois-Xavier Roux, a French neurosurgeon who travelled to North Korea to treat Kim Jong Il, confirms the rumour. "Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke but did not undergo an operation. He is now better," Roux says in December.
Kim reemerges into public view at the end of January 2009, meeting with a senior Chinese envoy. He is reported to appear "thinner but otherwise healthy".
2010 - 'Foreign Policy' magazine names Kim Jong Il as the world's worst dictator, describing him as a "personality-cult-cultivating isolationist with a taste for fine French cognac".
'Foreign Policy' ranks Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe as the world's second worst dictator. Burma's Than Shwe is ranked number three.
2011 - Kim Jong Il dies from a suspected heart attack on Saturday, 17 December. The country goes into an 11-day period of official mourning, culminating in a state funeral on 28 December. A national memorial service is held the following day. Kim is succeeded by his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
2012 - On 17 December, a year after his death, Kim Jong Il's embalmed body is put on display in the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang. Kim's corpse rests a few floors below that of his father, Kim Il Sung.
2014 - A United Nations Commission of Inquiry finds that "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials" and that the regime should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague to answer charges of crimes against humanity.
"These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation," the commission's report says.
According to the commission, the regime in North Korea "displays many attributes of a totalitarian state".
"The key to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent. Public executions and enforced disappearance to political prison camps serve as the ultimate means to terrorise the population into submission," the commission finds.
The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in prison camps over the past five decades and that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are currently detained in four large political prison camps.
Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens are estimated to have died from starvation due to the "decisions, actions and omissions by the state and its leadership".
The commission finds that the chain of command for the human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by the regime leads directly to the Supreme Leader. It calls on the UN to ensure that those responsible for the crimes are held to account, either through a Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal. The commission further recommends the ratification of a final peace settlement for the Korean War.
The three-member commission, headed by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, heard public testimony from more than 80 witnesses and experts. Over 240 confidential interviews were conducted with victims and other witnesses. The commission was established in March 2013 and handed down its report in February 2014.
On 18 December, the UN General Assembly adopts a resolution condemning "the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights" in North Korea. The Security Council discusses the human rights situation in North Korea for the first time ever on 22 December, but fails to take any action.
In 2003 the official website of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea described North Korea as "a socialist paradise where all the people have a life with dignity, without poverty and more than ever demonstrate the invincibility and union of the masses around the Leader".
This was a "socialist paradise" where at 7:00am each morning loudspeakers all across the country broadcasted the song '10 Million Human Bombs for Kim Il Sung'.
This was a "paradise" where famine was routine, and where the level of malnutrition caused the army to lower the minimum height for conscripts.
This was a "paradise" where power blackouts were common, as were diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera, and where ordinary citizens could be imprisoned for singing a song.
In the "paradise" created by Kim Il Sung all people were equal, but some people were more equal than others, to paraphrase the famous quote in George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'.
It was a "paradise" where "war is peace", "freedom is slavery" and "ignorance is strength", to again quote Orwell, this time from '1984'.
It was a "paradise" where Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free), as the Nazis wrote over the gates of their death camps during the Second World War.
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- The Democratic People's Republic of Korea Official Website
- North Korea | World news | The Guardian
- Stalin, Kim Il Sung, and the 38th Parallel
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- What's It Like to Be a Tourist in North Korea?
- Kim Jong Il obituary - The New York Times
- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il dies - Obituary - The Washington Post
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