Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Of power vacua and excesses

As expected (see "The Fall Of The House Of Park"), there's a de facto power vacuum in South Korea, where President PARK Geun-hye, plagued by the CHOI Soon-sil scandal, is every day more unlikely to finish her mandate.

The Korean people is quasi unanimous, and honored this nation's democracy through the most massive and perfect demonstration in the heart of Seoul.

If ever the stubborn PGH doesn't seem ready to step down, it's basically a matter of how and when. The opposition demands an immediate resignation, which would allow MOON Jae-in, AHN Cheol-soo, and PARK Won-soon to run, and what's left of the ruling party would prefer an impeachment that would take much more time, and allow BAN Ki-moon to join the race

The Saenuri implosion was already acted when the pro-Park faction confirmed its lock on the party, months ago. And such conservative media as Chosun Ilbo and Joongang Ilbo / JTBC are playing active roles in exposing scandals as they come.

Beyond CHOI Soon-sil and PARK Geun-hye, the case of WOO Byung-woo could turn out to be the most crucial for the future of South Korea democracy, because it exposes corruption at the core of justice. Judging by the doubts surrounding the former prosecutor's own prosecutors, it won't be easily done.

I often worry about the fragile balance of powers in South Korea (for instance in 2012 - see "25 years later"). And that essential dimension of democracy must be reaffirmed now that democracy itself is struggling across the globe.

Without waiting for the next lame duck to claim Cheong Wa Dae, the Asia Pacific region is celebrating the arrival of yet another controversial leader with a questionable vision of democracy: this scary motley crew (KIM Jong-un, Vladimir PUTIN, Shinzo ABE, Narendra MODI, XI Jinping, Rodrigo DUTERTE...) welcomes Donald TRUMP, who will soon have an access to both the nuclear and the POTUS twitter account codes. 

What could possibly go wrong?

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Fall Of The House Of Park

When PARK Geun-hye was elected, I seriously wondered "who won the elections?", and "if she's running her own show" (see "The Anipang Election: Park wins big, but who won?").

Back then, I was mostly thinking about the potential influence of such political cliques as die-hard PARK Chung-hee loyalists, revisionists she never truly distanciated herself from. I had no clue about her dependence to the guru dynasty CHOI Tae-min - CHOI Soon-sil.

That didn't come as a surprise in a nation where so many charlatans gravitate around powerful people, exploiting their weaknesses as easily as they do with 'commoners', only with greater reward.

And in Korea, when the gimchi hits the fan, it can get so grossly messy that you often feel like crying and laughing out loud at the same time (ICYMI read T.K.'s scarily hillarious summary on the CHOI Soon-sil scandal "The Irrational Downfall of Park Geun-hye" - 20161029).

This quasi legally incapacitated president simply has to step down. But this morning, if PARK agreed on inquieries, she was still in denial of being under influence.

She appointed a ROH Moo-hyun-friendly PM, KIM Byeong-joon, and a KIM Dae-jung-friendly Chief of Staff, Han Gwang-ok, to take care of a good part of the business... if not to put some pressure on the opposition, and to welcome them on board her sinking vessel.

By doing that, she also potentially forges a direct competitor to MOON Jae-in and AHN Cheol-soo for next year's presidential elections. Meanwhile, PARK Won-soon tries to seize the president's political suicide as swiftly as he did for his predecessor in Seoul City Hall OH Se-hoon, and to make the most of the few weeks remaining before BAN Ki-moon can declare himself.

One thing seems sure: if the UNSG runs, it won't be under the Saenuri banner. The name was chosen by CHOI Soon-sil, and the party is bound to implode following this latest twist in the destructive pro-anti-Park tug of war.

So much for PARK Geun-hye's heritage. And beyond that, for her family's legacy.

PARK Chung-hee didn't have the guts to terminate the CHOI Tae-min imposture in its infancy, and ever since, his daughter and her siblings have paid the price. Now this family mess has contaminated the whole nation.

Here's how, four years ago, I concluded my remarks on PGH's election: "It's up to her (or to the people who drive the vehicle) to decide where to lead the nation, and what kind of final legacy she wants her family to leave. Let's see how this blank page evolves. And how history is being written. Including and particularly the past, in school textbooks."
And timely, school textbooks tainted by CHOI's fingerprints have just be confirmed*...

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* see "Protesting 'Soon-sil textbook'" (The Korea Times 20161103)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sustainable and Smart Tourism in Korea - a SWOT analysis

My presentation at last week's 2016 Sustainable and Smart Tourism Forum can be downloaded there. As the title suggest, "Sustainable and Smart Tourism in Korea - a SWOT analysis", provides an overview of Korea's Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats regarding this hopefully future-proof approach of tourism. It starts with simple definitions, and a focus on the 'Korean Wave Dependence' that illustrates how a cultural asset can become a liability*.

Thank you again, Catherine GERMIER-HAMEL, for organizing the event, and best wishes to all participants, particularly to the younger generations of innovators in sustainable solutions.  

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* that section echoes my 2013 presentation at the first World Congress for Hallyu, "Heralding cultural diversity - a stronger and more sustainable Korean wave" (Part I, Part II, Part III). 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Seoul summerscapes: death, taxes, and budongsan

I'd like to look back to a few urbanistic topics that animated this hot Summer in the city, but let me start with this most recent trip en province.


During that lovely Chuseok break in Chungcheongnam-do, we crossed a 'silver neighborhood'. I'd never seen the sign, but the very existence of the label tells a lot. That non-descript suburb felt neither like the kind of ghost towns you see in rural areas, nor like a retirement community, but like a city where people under 70 happen to be absent. At least, in the countryside, you could notice younger generations visiting their gramps for the holidays to help them at what was left of their farms:

Many families farming for Chuseok in Korea countryside: young guns visiting old timers who can barely walk (20160915 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/776275471017218048)
In aging Japan, localities are merging, and to fill millions of empty buildings, signs advertise free rentals, where owners will even pay your utility bills. Korea is also feeling the demographic pinch: many schools are closing, and a few universities shall follow... but still, you can see a lot of apartment blocks under construction in non-booming second to third tier cities, and often in their most rural settings, where land is cheaper. Even if developers manage to sell them today, buyers will have a tougher time doing so in the future.

Yet nowhere is the real estate oversupply more evident than in the capital region: Sudogwon is overshooting by 34.6% with 226,000 apartments too many by 2019, or 46.8% of the nationwide excess*. Significantly, SH changed its name from Seoul Housing Corporation to Seoul Housing and Communities Corporation, confirming a shift from constructing to animating:

SH (Seoul Housing) to be rebranded 서울주택도시공사 from Sept. 1, as focus shifts to urban regeneration (20160830 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/770514127366127616)
But the building phase is not over yet, and in this less than zero game, places like Yongin struggle more and sooner than others:

As expected, Yongin among the losers in Korea's real estate oversupply (20160829 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/770110604992536577) - "After building boom, South Korea girds for housing glut" (Reuters)

At the same time, and as usual, key demographics are protected by local authorities. The only way to help Apgujeong elites sell their overly expensive flats with a profit is to make exceptions to construction rules (e.g. allow very high rise redevelopments and / or reduce the land to be offered for public use), and that's exactly the gifts Seoul mayors made. Both OH Se-hoon and PARK Won-soon, in spite of their pledges to rebalance Seoul's rich and poor neighborhoods, and to stop this urban nonsense...

Seoul mayors Oh and Park both secured Apgujeong elite votes - "Apgujeong real estate hot once again" KJD (20160723 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/756651911223259136)
Of course, the city prefers to communicate about its urban regeneration projects (see "Urban Regeneration: 27 Projects For Seoul"), and the mayor is still going full throttle with his signature Seoul Station 7017. This Summer, the concept has been showcased on Seoul Plaza (as announced by Winy Maas last Spring in Seoul), and featured in CNN's Sustainable Cities special. Judging by how fast the site evolves each time I pass by the neighborhood, 'SS7017' seems on path for a delivery on time for the elections. But its success will also be measured by the positive impacts on all affected neighborhoods - more tasks ahead for the 'grassroot' activists who worked on defusing tensions ahead of the project!
Blue sky over Seoul Square and yes, Seoul Station 7017 #ss7017 #seoul (20160827 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/769446349276262400)
Seoul mayors love to boast about their legacies, and I already drew parallels between the last three,  LEE Myung-bak, OH Se-hoon, and PARK Won-soon (most recently in "Pour ré-enfanter Séoul : trois maires et quelques impairs"). But none had as big an impact as KIM Hyeon-ok (1966-1970), and the best exhibition in Seoul this Summer was arguably** the one devoted to the city's first 'bulldozer mayor' at the Seoul Museum of History:

Seoul's first 'bulldozer mayor' Kim Hyeon-ok (previously Busan mayor) resigned after the collapse of the Changjeon-dong apt (20160810 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/763295834112831488)
Note that the SMH also added Inhyeon-dong to its fantastic collection of Seoul neighborhood monographies, which is not far from KIM Swoo-geun's Seun Sangga, one of KIM Hyeon-ok's iconic projects.

Following Pil-dong's Yesultong festival in May, Jung-gu was definitely an underlying theme for me this Summer. And I enjoyed walking through what was left of KIM Ki-chan's Jungnim-dong with fellow urbanist Valerie Gelezeau, finishing in Yeomcheon Bridge's shoe alley.

I love this house in Jungnim-dong. Too bad it is bound for destruction (20160720 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/755704708577103872)

Speaking of KIM Ki-chan: I learned only last month that two great Seoul photographers had passed away in May: HONG Soon-tai and KIM Han-yong (who donated his collections to the Seoul Museum of History in 2013, leading to a nice exhibition soon afterwards).

Cheonggyecheon alleyways, Seoul 1971. Sad to learn that Hong Soon-tai passed away this year (20160820 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/766890115922735104)
... and so did Kim Han-yong. Here, Daeheung-dong alleyways, Mapo-gu, Seoul (20160820 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/766892185912389632)

Sorry for the tone of this post, but such is predictable Seoul: death, taxes, and 'budongsan'...

We've reached the point when seeing a few old trees spared makes our day. So bravo to Seongbuk-dong residents for stopping the massacre halfway along Seongbuk-ro:

Seongbuk-dong residents protest the removal of old platanus trees along Seongbuk-ro, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul (20160816 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/765452146443558912)


I couldn't finish these moody lines about vanishing neighborhoods without yet another Gyonam-dong update. As I explained recently to students surveying the area, this was not my favorite Seoul village, and not even a full village at that, but Gyonam-dong didn't deserve that death. And this shouldn't have happened in 2014 Seoul.

I will spare you the heavy slides, and just post one picture and two videos.

The picture is from a tweet (like most illustrations in this piece) about the end of the 'Sinmunno Triangle' between Pyeong-dong and Gyeonghuigung:

The curtain falls for Pyeong-dong, where Seoul dumped its urban recreation museum project - Gyonam-dong (20160810 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/763340100361039872)
The first video is a selection of tweets (timelinelapse?) from 2012 to 2016, about the destruction of Gyonam-dong and the rise of Donuimun New Town (Gyeonghuigung Xii apartments):

The second video is a view from the new staircase built at the top of the new town. You can only see a tiny bit of Seodaemun across Tongil-ro, and of Inwangsan in the distance:

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* see this tweet related to "Real estate market braces for oversupply" (KJD 20160815)
** after LEE Jung-seob at MMCA Deoksugung of course!

Captivating Lee Jung-seob exhibition in MMCA Deoksugung, Seoul (20160806 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/761763045584404480)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

One last gold medal for Korea (the usual one)

Korean broadcasters perfectly wrapped up their coverage of the Rio Olympics by masking the parade of world athletes with the portraits of national competitors they already aired 99% of the time during the whole competition - I actually switched from MBC to SBS because there, that patriotic display filled less than half the screen:

Even when other nations are on screen at Rio 2016, Korea broadcasters manage to show national athletes (20160822 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/767507917016698881)
So once again, Korea claimed the gold medal for national chauvinism on TV, a domain where the country faces much tougher and diverse competition than in archery.

In case you missed the Rio games and the previous editions, here's how it works: 
  • all major broadcasters sharing the same rights for the games, the competition among them is all about populism and fueling national fervor
  • if a national champion is competing, major broadcasters must also air them live on their dedicated sports channel (and when it's PARK In-bee, throw in that dedicated golf channel for good measure) - when that's a second rate athlete, use the sport channel to rerun the exploits of top tier stars.
  • on the last day, when there's 0% chance of medal, start one hour later and replay past medal bouts
  • otherwise, may be aired live only universal legends in the very exclusive Usain BOLT - Michael PHELPS league (two more games required for Simone BILES, and Team USA B stood no chance with none of that 1992-dream-team material) - these legends are part of the comfort zone, their presence providing both the 'international' label, and the 'sport domination' alibi
  • success basically always relies on the same sports - difficult to grow new vocations without 'training' the audience with a decent pedagogy of Olympic diversity...
Baseball returns to the Olympics for Tokyo 2020, and you don't know what may happen if Korea faces Japan in the finals.

Aaah, Tokyo 2020! Different flavor of ultranationalism there. Today, the Olympic flag was handed to Nippon Kaigi darlings Yuriko Koike (the newly elected governor), and Shinzo Abe, who popped up dressed as Super Mario:

Inspired by Queen Elizabeth II's cameo appearance for London 2012, Shinzo Abe showed up as Super Mario. A weird solo performance (lacking the humor and Bond sidekick), particularly from an elected politician less iconic than British royalty... Imagine Erdogan doing the same for Istanbul 2020. If Abe's less into personal ego than into the revival of the fascist regime, he never misses an opportunity to show his face on an international stage (e.g. featured at the end of each ad of the Japan government's ongoing PR campaign on CNN)

Super Tojo ready for Tojo 2020 - let the Nippon Kaigi games begin!

BREAKING - Shinzo Abe unveils new logo for Tokyo 2020 (Hideki Tojo 2020) (20150911 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/642228805260570624)

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What's cooking, Korea?

In a recent focus on the decline of home made banchan in Korea*, Korea Joongang Daily mentioned busy schedules, and the boom in HMR (Home Made Replacement) products, new online services (e.g. The Banchan, about to be purchased by food major Dongwon Group), or restaurants proposing home food (jipbap).
Korea's tradition of homemade banchan is vaning. Many new products and services indeed (20160810 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/763151485890809856)
To me, even more than the arrival of hypermarkets, the emergence of SSM or Super-SuperMarket  (dominated by the same oligopoly: Lotte Super, HomePlus Express, E-mart everyday) accelerated changes in HMR variety and packaging, particularly when it comes to targeting specific demographics, like single households. And as all the major producers seeked for differenciation, the HMR offer evolved from classic dishes to more creative recipes. 

Yet that creativity has yet to emerge for banchan in the Korean distribution, even online.
If theBanchan is more a food market before than a banchan specialist, it does offer a wide range of banchan, but without revisiting the classics. Furthermore, big food groups taking over this kind of potentially disruptive players doesn't bode well for diversity in the future.
I'm less worried about fewer Koreans preparing their own banchan - a logical trend - than about Korean palates being exposed to fewer kinds of banchan. And over the past few years, the decline in diversity for side dishes offered in Korea's mom and pop restaurants has been very spectacular. If it's linked to their struggle to stay in business in these times of crisis, old customer habits don't help: many remain reluctant to pay a fair price for Korean food (yet ready to pay way too much for mediocre Foreign food). 

The good news is that Korea, as usual experiencing societal changes at bballi bballi speed, seems to be rediscovering cooking way sooner than other nations. And not just young girls asking family recipes from their halmoni: people of all ages opening creative eateries, granddads venturing into the kitchen, food becoming a key driver in the startup ecosystem...

So be not afraid, Korea, and keep surprising us!

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* "Rise of pre-made banchan may herald end of an era: Busy schedules deal blow to culture of Korea’s quintessential side dishes" (KJD 20160810)

Monday, August 1, 2016

Welcome to Ulaanbaatar Village

I just returned from my first trip to Mongolia (UB, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Khovsgol Nuur) with a deep love for the country, its people, its rich and diverse nature and culture.

Yes, Ulaanbaatar is not much of a 'love at first sight' capital city, with its Soviet-size blocs and avenues, its lack of an old town, its pollution (coal power plants, heating, Gobi dust, traffic, air trapped by the surrounding mountains), or its extreme climate (minus fifty during the Winter, over thirty in the Summer - mercifully, no humidity, no mosquitoes), but it does have touching alleyways and traditional houses in its 'ger' areas (NB 'ger' is the Mongolian term for yurt).

A 'ger' close to the city center

Most 'ger' are located on the outskirts - particularly to the North. From a downtown tower, you can see them reach over the furthest hills (Note also the E-Mart* in the foreground - right).

We're not talking Seoul-style hanok clusters - ger are nomadic structures, not meant to stay all year round at the same place, and UB's ger villages are rather a symbol of urban sprawl caused by rural exodus. Many of their owners landed in Ulaanbaatar for lack of a better option, sometimes after losing all their cattle during an extreme winter, like that 2010 'dzud'. Most grabbed a spot illegally - it's okay to settle for a while, and each Mongolian citizen is allowed 0.7 ha for free in this vast, mostly uninhabited country (3M souls for 1.5M sqkm, not to mention 60M heads of cattle), but there are rules to follow to claim a land.

Ger villages themselves are evolving, and it shows as you move from the city center to its edges. On the furthest hills, the new lots look like miniature versions of the fenced properties you see in the countryside, there are not many structures beyond the ger, and even sometimes a few goats. Progressively, lots incorporate elements more common to shanty towns, or even upcycle containers. The proportion of traditional ger decreases, and small houses start to emerge, followed by concrete buildings along major roads that have been paved under a Mayor (Erdeniin Bat-Uul) who decided to invest a lot in these previously forsaken areas. Actual alleyways with street signage and numbers can be found more often, and where they meet the main roads, a few services illustrate how the shanty town is turning into a town.

As each individual transits from nomadic to urban life, a new kind of community is taking shape. For the moment, the density remains low because people who moved in could snatch decent space, and their kids don't need their own place yet. Many nomads watch the TV, charge their phones, and use mobile internet as they do on the go thanks to small solar panels, even if these neighborhoods have no electricity. Crime remains surprisingly low, and usually limited to petty theft, because that's not in the culture. And surprisingly enough, these neighborhoods are much cleaner than many cities, thanks to another good Mongolian tradition of respecting nature, public and shared spaces; just like you find well protected waste gathering spots by the roads in the steppe, people take care of their garbage in an orderly manner.

But the situation is already almost beyond control in most ger areas: no sewage system, no water system, a 60% unemployment rate, major health issues (e.g. people burning tires in their ger to survive cold winters),... and a demographic boom to cope with. Half the population lives in the capital compared to a quarter before the 1990 democratic revolution (Ulaanbaatar had 540,600 inh in 1989, over 1.3 M now), and tens of thousands more join these ger areas every year.

The social and urban planning challenges are titanic at all levels, particularly as the country stops posting record growth rates, and as the city tries to recover from a housing bubble. If Mongolia is seeking inspiration from other countries and particularly Korea, it can also try to leverage its unique assets.

I'll take 3 examples - transports, housing, and environment:

  • Public transportation:  
    • UB's subway project has been postponed several times, but should turn out well. A bit like Paris' Ligne 1, the first line would follow the central axis (17.7 km mostly along Peace Avenue). UB is also working on BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), and dedicated lanes that could make a big difference in a city clogged by traffic jams. 
    • A 'maeul bus' system could be adapted to the ger configuration, maybe circling along each hill (the unit used in the steppe to measure distances), and connected to the main backbones of the network. The Mongolian people could also come up with a original system that honors their great expertise in logistics.

  • Housing:
    • UB is betting on apartments, and there are already many of these across the city, from the Soviet-era blocks to the luxury serviced residences South of the Tuul river (Gangnam, indeed!). Nothing adapted to the local context and culture. And I don't want these ger areas to be turned into soullesss 'apateu' bed towns like the ones Seoul built in the 80s. 
    • At least, Seoul could leverage on Korea's village culture. And to me one of the key challenges for Ulaanbaatar is to integrate masses who grew up in an overwhelmingly nomadic culture into a diverse and future proof cityscape without losing anyone's identity. If UB is organized in big districts, they are not yet divided into neighborhoods, and something specific should definitely be considered for these vast ger stretches. As soon as possible.
    • The new alleyways are created like long verticals, but gers, and hills are round. I believe in a grid that would have rounder nodes, and shared spaces allocated in advance to nature and community life. Right now you still can see the hills around you, but five, ten years from now, most people in the ger areas will be deprived of the view of nature, and that's a tragedy for a people of nomads who roamed such beautiful landscapes. No construction should be allowed on the top of each hill, and mid-rise structures preferred to towers for apartments, so that everybody can, at any moment, walk up a few hectometers and enjoy some feeling of space. And guess what? Each neighborhood map would look like a ger ceiling! Of course, urban continuity is also needed, and neighborhoods should not exclude each other, the aim is to bring people together, to go beyond hutong walls.
    • Step by step(pe?), people will give some purpose to these empty spots, and who knows, some may become known for their wrestling events, their BBQ parties, or their song contests. The day people give a name to their own neighborhood, replace that stupid number with it! UB has a tough time mapping itself, and OpenStreetMap is working on it, but let's involve even more local populations.
    • Mongolia can design land incentives to have people move to a different spot or a collective housing when needed - of course without creating inequalities with other regions and drawing more people to the cities.
    • BTW, speaking of hill tops: remember the time you could see from a distance a red cross lit at night on the top of every hill in Seoul? And nowadays, a lot of Korean missionaries are roaming UB, because they know from the Korean experience that this urban boom is an opportunity to easily convert people who left the countryside...
Ulaanbaatar Northeastern ger villages on Google Maps: a classic urban sprawl with bottlenecks in the making and little harmony.

Landing in Murun, Khovsgol, a similar (sub)urban pattern
(20160728 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/758486344020525057)

Great walks through Ulaanbaatar ger villages. Urban planning challenges similar to yet different from old Seoul's (20160731 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/759713248941793280)

  • Environment:
    • Sound public transportation and housing policies are needed to improve air quality in UB. But removing these coal power plants would help a lot, and it's hard to give up coal when it's so cheap to extract from your own land. 
    • As it happens, Mongolia was named after its blue skies, and enjoys over 200 sunny days every year, which is ideal to harvest solar energy. Yet you don't see many solar panels in the city center, and that's a shame. 
    • Since many ger owners are familiar with the technology, ger neighborhoods must show the way and bring solar energy to the next level as they evolve - one more reason to prefer mid-rise structures, that won't take the sun from their neighbors. And let's seize the opportunity to design streets that don't freeze during the winter, public transportations that source their energy at least partly from the sun.
    • Impossible weather and frozen soils make it difficult to grow vegetables outdoor? Ulaanbaatar could also become a model city for urban farming by using part of its abundant sunlight to grow indoor and off-soil, and starting with ger areas would be the easiest and most scalable way. Bonus: sustainable jobs within each neighborhood - straight from nomads to urban farmers!

Those are only random thoughts. Seoul Village has certainly no lessons to give to Ulaanbaatar Village, and to the contrary I wish that a few years from now, the rest of the world will visit UB for inspiration.

A photo posted by Stephane MOT (@stephanemot) on

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* hardly a surprise in a city where South Korean coffee franchises are multiplying, and where every other international restaurant seems to be Korean (including from the North).

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