Dozens killed in fire at Miryang hospital

At least 37 dead with toll feared to rise after emergency room blaze at hospital in southern city.

    At least 37 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in a fire at a hospital in southern South Korea.

    The fire started on Friday morning at around 7:30am local time in the emergency room on the first floor of Sejong Hospital, Miryang, some 400km from the capital Seoul.

    It was extinguished in three hours.

    Firefighters expect the number of casualties will rise further, according to South Korea’s official news agency, Yonhap.

    At least nine people were seriously wounded in the blaze, Yonhap reported, adding that the fire was South Korea’s deadliest in a decade.

    The majority of those who lost their lives died of suffocation from toxic smoke, as opposed to burns.

    Local media reported that a doctor and two nurses were among the dead. Most of the victims were believed to have been elderly patients, according to Korea Times.

    The chief of Miryang City’s fire department said that the hospital did not have fire sprinklers, the English-language Korean daily reported. 

    “There was so much smoke that it was hard for people to approach [the building],” a witness told a local television news outlet. “Even from 10 metres away, it was frightening.”

    Al Jazeera’s Cathy Novak, reporting from Seoul, said President Moon Jae-in had called an emergency meeting with his top advisers.

    “He said it was an extremely regrettable situation,” Novak said. “There were around 100 people in the hospital itself at the time, and another 96 people in an adjacent building, which is akin to a hospice.”

    Those 96 patients are believed to be safe, she said.

    “Questions will be asked about the safety at that hospital the cause of this fire,” said Novak.

    She added that a month ago, at least 29 people were killed at a sports centre in the south of the country.


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    'Baby Shark' driving you crazy? Its creator warns penguins are next

    SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) – “Baby Shark (Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo)” is the YouTube sensation that’s been viewed more than two billion times and made the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a second straight week.

    The jingle has also become such an earworm that late-night show host Jimmy Kimmel proposed throwing those responsible in jail for life.

    Love or hate it, the South Korean company behind the one-and-a-half minute song about a family of sharks is now seeking to capitalise on the success by expanding its kid-oriented entertainment business.

    Seoul-based SmartStudy’s Pinkfong is planning to release short videos via Netflix, a cartoon series and a musical in North America this year, one of the company’s founders said in an interview this week.

    The start-up, which has recently signed various merchandising deals, may also develop games that work with Amazon’s Alexa and Alphabet’s Google Home voice assistants, he said.

    The popularity of the sing-along builds on South Korea’s emergence as an entertainment powerhouse.

    Korean pop, or K-pop, has grown into a US$5 billion industry thanks to the success of the likes of boy band BTS, which has signed commercial deals with big companies from Hyundai Motor to Barbie-maker Mattel, and Psy, whose Gangnam Style is at more than three billion views and counting.

    “We’ve added the ‘K-pop factor’ into our songs, such as very trendy beats and upbeat rhythms,” said Seung-kyu Lee, who’s also chief financial officer at SmartStudy.

    “If you’ve ever heard of ‘Baby Shark,’ you might feel the importance of community. In a group, we should walk or swim together.”

    Unlike BTS, SmartStudy has found its niche with kiddie pop, targeting children aged between one and four with addictive, dance-along videos. It was established in 2010 by three former online gaming employees.

    Lee, 44, who formerly worked at game-maker Nexon’s marketing department, said the trio wanted to pursue opportunities in the growing market for educational content in smartphones by using their expertise in attracting and keeping users to make money.

    Lee said the Korean educational app-to-video maker’s early days were tough but that its business grew fast after the Baby Shark video went viral.

    Revenue at closely held SmartStudy is expected to have increased to 37 billion won last year from 27.2 billion won and net income probably more than doubled to about five billion won, according to Lee.

    Digital sales account for about 70 per cent of its total business, with the rest mainly coming from physical sales such as merchandising, he said.

    Others are benefiting too. Samsung Publishing, which owns 25 per cent of SmartStudy, surged by the 30 per cent daily limit to a record high in Seoul on Wednesday (Jan 16). The stock has gained 83 per cent this year.

    For its next act, Lee says the company will be developing content for older children – aged five to eight – and that he’s looking beyond sharks by closely examining penguins.

    “I really liked Madagascar,” Lee said, in reference to the DreamWorks Animation films that featured some penguins.

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    Dawn delivery in South Korea takes retail industry by storm

    SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – In recent years, South Korea’s door-to-door delivery service has evolved to allow customers to expect their parcels the very next day, or within two to three days at maximum.

    While much of this dynamic still stands, e-commerce companies and retail giants have rolled out a “dawn delivery” service, striving to cut down delivery times even further.

    Dawn delivery allows orders to be placed as late as midnight, with deliveries guaranteed to arrive by 7am the next day. Daily necessities and perishable fresh food products are popular items for dawn delivery.

    According to the industry, the dawn delivery market was valued at around 10 billion won in 2015. Although the service is currently available only in Seoul and some parts of Gyeonggi Province and Incheon due to lack of logistics infrastructure, the market value is estimated to have already reached 400 billion won (S$484 million) last year.

    An online grocery start-up Market Kurly first introduced the concept of dawn delivery in 2015. Its “Saetbyul delivery” delivers food products by 7am if customers order before 11pm the night before.

    While next-day delivery ensures the goods reach customers within the shortest hours possible, dawn delivery sets the timeline to the very next morning.

    According to Market Kurly, products are packed and dispatched from its logistics centre in Songpa-gu to some 480 deliverymen by 2.30am daily. As of August last year, an average of 12,000 orders were made every day for Saetbyul delivery.

    Thanks to increasing consumer demand for fresh food in the morning, the company saw 46.5 billion won in sales in 2017, about 167 per cent year-on-year increase. It forecasts some 160 billion won in sales in the last year.

    Market Kurly remains the dominant leader in the dawn delivery market, being responsible for some 79.5 per cent of the logistics as of August last year, according to Statistics Korea. The company has expanded its horizon by offering not only fresh food, but also side dishes, home-meal replacement kits for parties, and desserts.

    Major retail companies have joined the dawn delivery race.

    In October, Coupang rolled out Rocket Fresh, which ensures delivery of some 4,200 fresh food and other items by 7am the next day. The company operates its some 3,000 deliverymen or Coupang Man into teams with different work schedules. For dawn delivery, a Coupang Man works from 10pm to 8am.

    Last year, E-mart launched a similar offering, SSG Good Morning, with a preferred delivery window of between 6am and 9am or 7am and 10am.

    The company has recently secured one trillion won from a foreign investment firm and a private equity firm in October to strengthen its e-commerce business. It currently runs logistics centres in Yongin and Gimpo, which are equipped with automation facilities, stock prediction and management system. The company ultimately aims to set up a system to send products here for same-day or three-hour delivery.

    Another retail giant, Lotte, has chosen to merge two of its affiliates to strengthen its logistics capacity.

    In November, it merged its two logistics affiliates Lotte Global Logis and Lotte Logistics, giving birth to a logistics company with five trillion won of annual sales and three trillion won of assets. It is also working to build the country’s largest logistics centre in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province.

    Meanwhile, market insiders said dawn delivery had become a costly prerequisite for retailers. The cut-throat competition in the dawn delivery market has also consistently raised questions about the hours and conditions of delivery work, pushing respective companies to adapt their shift systems.

    “For such a system to settle, it requires a lot of money,” an industry insider from an e-commerce company told The Korea Herald. He added that the cost of building logistics centres with cold chain systems, which manage stock in a temperature-controlled supply chain, begins at several hundred million won.

    Said another industry insider: “Who dominates the e-commerce market with next-morning delivery service will be a matter of which company establishes the larger logistics centres the fastest.”

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    Two Koreas to pledge road, rail links on divided peninsula

    SEOUL (AFP) – A South Korean delegation left for North Korea on Wednesday (Dec 26) to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for reconnecting roads and railways across the divided peninsula despite stalled denuclearisation talks.

    A nine-car special train carrying some 100 South Koreans, including officials and five people born in the North, was seen leaving Seoul railway station early in the morning for a two-hour journey to the North’s border city of Kaesong.

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un agreed to hold the ceremony by the end of this year when they met at their third summit in Pyongyang in September.

    Concerns arose that the train and other materials being brought into the North for the ceremony could breach various sanctions imposed on the isolated regime over its nuclear weapons programme, but the UN Security Council reportedly granted a waver for the event.

    Seoul stressed that the ceremony would not herald the start of actual work on reconnecting and modernising road and rail links between the two Koreas – which remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty.

    The event is a mere “expression of a commitment” to the projects, a South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman said, adding that construction would depend on “progress on the North’s denuclearisation and circumstances concerning sanctions.” The two sides wrapped up their joint railway and road inspections for the projects this month.

    South Korea has set aside some $620,000 (S$851,260) for the endeavour.

    The ceremony comes as the United States ramps up efforts to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

    Following a rapid rapprochement earlier this year that culminated in a historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, progress has stalled with both sides accusing each other of dragging their feet and acting in bad faith.

    Critics say North Korea has made no concrete commitments and is unlikely to surrender its atomic arsenal, while Washington’s policy of maintaining pressure through isolation and sanctions has left Pyongyang seething.

    Second summit

    Trump said Monday that he was “looking forward” to his second summit with Kim, which Washington says may take place early next year.

    He tweeted the statement after he was briefed by Stephen Biegun, the US special representative on North Korea, who wrapped up a three-day trip to Seoul on Saturday.

    Biegun said last week the United States will be more lenient in enforcing its blanket ban on US citizens’ travel to the totalitarian state when dealing with aid workers, a goodwill gesture as Trump seeks a fresh summit.

    The Trump administration has generally refused to let US aid groups operate in North Korea, seeking to both maximise pressure on Pyongyang and ensure the safety of Americans.

    Biegun also said in Seoul last week Washington was willing to discuss trust-building initiatives with Pyongyang.

    Senior transport officials from Russia, China and Mongolia as well as several foreign ambassadors to South Korea will attend Wednesday’s ceremony, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

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    Art brightens South Korean industrial city

    A dreary grain silo was transformed into a piece of giant, colourful art in Incheon, South Korea has been named by Guinness World Records as the largest outdoor mural in the world.

      An industrial city in South Korea is now home to the world’s largest outdoor painted mural.

      A series of grain silos in Incheon were painted to resemble a row of books telling the story of a boy’s journey into adulthood, while also depicting all four seasons.

      The city, home to the international airport that serves nearby Seoul, hopes the mural will appeal to tourists and is now considering other industrial buildings as canvases for potential art.

       

      Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride reports from Incheon City.

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      South Korean president Moon Jae-in hints at slowing the pace of minimum wage hikes

      SEOUL (REUTERS) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Monday (Dec 17) that the government may take steps to cushion the effects from the sharp minimum wage increases of a combined 29 per cent over two years, which have led to a drop in low-paying jobs.

      At a meeting of economy-related ministers, Mr Moon also said the government should aggressively remove hurdles to corporate investment, as weak domestic investment added downward pressure on an economy already grappling with slowing exports.

      “It is important that new economic policies such as the minimum wage hike and workweek cut are pursued under a general consensus based on the tolerance and harmony of interested parties,” Moon said during an extended meeting of economy-related ministers, Yonhap reported.

      “If necessary, we need to devise ways to make adjustments.”

      He urged his officials to be cautious against key economic policies’ possible adverse repercussions on society, and to adjust them if so.

      The meeting was the first of its kind under Moon’s presidency, Yonhap said. It was attended by new Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae, who doubles as deputy prime minister for social affairs, and heads of other key ministries and government agencies in charge of economy-related policies. 

      Raising the minimum hourly rate is one of Moon’s core economic initiatives to re-shape the economy and deliver what he says is “quality” growth that is shared more broadly and not based on speculation..

      The government has decided on a 10.9 per cent raise to 8,350 won (S$10.20) per hour for next year and been pushing to increase the threshold to 10,000 won by 2020.

      But there have been growing calls for a revision to the record hike in minimum wage as it has hurt small businesses and is being blamed for the weakest job market in nine years. 

      The president, however, was unshaken about his push in overall economic policies for “inclusive growth” and called for patience and faith until the country reaches an outcome.

      “We are changing the basis of our economic policy and while there may be disputes and questions, we need to wait with patience until it bears fruit,” he said.

      Moon also called on the officials to prove to the public with achievements that the policy is heading in the right direction, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said.

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      Kim Jong-un Beauty Masks Are Pulled Off Shelves in South Korea

      South Korea is known for its robust beauty industry, with the country’s focus on personal appearance so intense that it has recently drawn a backlash.

      But now the industry faces unwelcome attention of a different sort: a company’s decision to market Kim Jong-un beauty masks — complete with “nuclear bomb” packaging that promises to moisturize and whiten the face — has led to such an uproar that the product has been pulled from some store shelves.

      More than 25,000 of these facial masks, which feature the North Korean leader’s face and blocky hairline, have been sold online and in stores since June, according to 5149, the South Korean cosmetics and fashion company that produced them. The company’s chief executive, Kwak Hyeon-ju, said she wanted the mask packs to celebrate what she called the “once in a lifetime” inter-Korean summits earlier this year.

      But as word of the unconventional product has spread, so has the criticism, leading one chain store, Pierrot Shopping, to remove the product from shelves following critical coverage in a major South Korean newspaper. Some say that such mockery of Mr. Kim only softens the image of North Korea, effectively creating propaganda for the regime.

      “The fact that the worst dictator in the world — who violates human rights of its residents — is portrayed as someone who can be part of making world peace shows that South Korean society has lost the ability to filter through and control the situation,” said Kang Dong-wan, a professor of North Korean culture and politics at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.

      Many consumers have posed playfully with the masks stuck to their faces and posted the images on social media. Others see it as the normalization of an oppressive dictator, and a trivialization of the nuclear threat that North Korea poses.

      The packaging of the “unification nuclear bomb packs” containing the product promises to moisturize, whiten or lift the buyer’s face. A promotional video on the company’s Instagram account touts the product as a “nuclear bomb erupting on your face.”

      “Should we now go over the border with a whitened face?” a caption on the product’s packaging reads, in a font commonly used in North Korean propaganda.

      Ms. Kwak said her product merely celebrated the jubilation that greeted Mr. Kim’s April meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.

      “I don’t know what Kim Jong-un means in North Korea or what he represents politically, but the whole country of South Korea was happy,” she said, referring to the moment when the North Korean leader stepped across the heavily armed border hand-in-hand with Mr. Moon.

      “I wanted to pat Kim Jong-un’s shoulder for coming,” Ms. Kwak said.

      Park Sang-hak, chairman of the human rights group Fighters for a Free North Korea, said the popularity of the masks showed how much South Koreans were falling for North Korean propaganda following the Kim-Moon meetings and the North’s recent peace overtures.

      “Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions get justified and even beautified by the words ‘nuclear bomb mask pack,’” he said.

      But such a product would be unthinkable in North Korea. Though the faces of North Korean leaders are widely worn on residents’ lapels, depictions that are less than reverent can lead to severe punishment.

      In South Korea, favorable depictions of North Korea are actually illegal under a 1948 law that is now rarely enforced. A youth fan club called “Welcome Committee for a Great Man” is not being blocked by the South Korean government from soliciting donations on the street to welcome Mr. Kim during his potential visit to Seoul this month.

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      North Korean soldier defects across border: South's military

      SEOUL (AFP) – A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea across the eastern land border on Saturday (Dec 1), the South’s military said.

      Defections across the closely guarded inter-Korean frontier are rare, and this one comes as the neighbours pursue a delicate reconciliation process.

      “A North Korean soldier was detected crossing the military demarcation line” by South Korean troops using surveillance equipment, the military Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.

      “The soldier is safely in our custody,” it said.

      “Related agencies plan to investigate him regarding the details of how he came to the South.”

      Even as talks on denuclearisation between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled, the two Koreas are pushing ahead with a reconciliation process, taking steps to ease tensions along their heavily fortified border.

      They have begun work to reconnect their railway systems, removed landmines and destroyed military bunkers at parts of the frontier.

      More than 30,000 North Korean civilians have fled their homeland but most flee across the porous frontier with China, and rarely across the inter-Korean border which is fortified with minefields and barbed wire.

      The last defection involving North Koreans occurred in May when two civilians aboard a small boat defected to the South across the Yellow Sea.

      In November last year, a North Korean soldier drove to the heavily guarded border at speed and ran across under a hail of bullets from his own side.

      He was hit multiple times in the dramatic defection at the Panmunjom truce village.

      In 2012 a North Korean soldier walked unchecked through rows of electrified fencing and surveillance cameras, prompting Seoul to sack three field commanders for the security lapse.

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      South Korea successfully tests space rocket engine

      SEOUL (AFP) – South Korea on Wednesday (Nov 28) successfully conducted a rocket engine test launch, officials said, paving the way for the development of its own space launch vehicle.

      Video footage showed the single-stage rocket, propelled by a liquid fuel engine, lift off from the Naro Space Centre on the southern coast and surge into the sky, trailing yellow and blue flames.

      “The test vehicle was successfully launched,” Vice Science Minister Lee Jin-gyu told journalists, adding collected flight data showed the engine was functioning normally.

      The rocket, weighing 52 tonnes and measuring 25.8m long, was fitted with a single engine with 75-tonne thrust, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (Kari) said.

      The engine, designed and developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (Kari) as part of a US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion) project, will be used to propel the country’s first indigenous three-stage launch vehicle – the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-2 (KSLV-2).

      Engine combustion lasted for 151 seconds, surpassing an initial goal of 140 seconds, bringing the vehicle to an altitude of 75km before the engine stopped.

      But it continued flying due to inertia, reaching a suborbital altitude of 209km, 319 seconds after lift-off.

      It then splashed down into the ocean 429 kilometres southeast of the southern resort island of Jeju.

      “This is a significant step forward in developing a launch vehicle with our own technology,” a Kari spokesman said.

      It is the first such launch in South Korea since 2013 when the country successfully put a small satellite into orbit following failures in 2009 and in 2010.

      But the significance of the 2013 launch was widely discounted, as the launch vehicle had to rely on a Russia-developed engine for its first stage.

      On its launch – scheduled for 2021 – KSLV-2 will use five of the newly developed engines, a bundle of four for the first stage and another one for the second stage.

      Wednesday’s test was deemed successful, as the engine combustion was maintained for over 140 seconds during the test launch, Yonhap said.

      The KSLV-2 rocket, which will be South Korea’s first space vehicle wholly designed and built by itself, will be used to place satellites into the Earth’s orbit and for other commercial applications.

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      Koreas may unite for Unesco listing

      ANDONG (South Korea) • North and South Korea have long grappled over their joint symbols at United Nations culture organisation Unesco, but they could share the honours this week when twin applications for traditional Korean wrestling come up for consideration.

      The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-1953 conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, sealing the division of the peninsula with an impenetrable border.

      But despite their vast differences, the democratic South and the communist North share the same language, culture and traditions dating back thousands of years, resulting in subtle rivalry for Unesco inscriptions in recent years.

      South Korea added its tradition of making kimchi – a fermented cabbage dish widely enjoyed across the peninsula – to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013, prompting the North to seek the same status for its own version, granted in 2015.

      The Korean folk song Arirang has a similar story – the South’s was recognised in 2012, followed by the North’s two years later.

      “The South and North are registered as different countries at the Unesco, so we have been working separately,” said the South’s Cultural Heritage Administration, which handles Unesco applications.

      What is ssireum?

      Ssireum is among the oldest-surviving sports in Korea, with fourth-century murals from the Goguryeo dynasty depicting men grappling with each other in the traditional game.

      A ssireum match has some similarities to Japanese sumo but begins with two wrestlers facing each other on their knees in a sandpit ring, holding onto a cloth sash tied around the waist and using their strength and technique to knock the opponent to the ground.

      The sport has been part of village festivals for centuries and nationwide competitions are still held every Chuseok – the Korean harvest festival – on either side of the border.

      “A joint inscription would establish a sense of homogeneity or a single identity between the South and North,” said Mr Kim Dong-sun, a professor of sports science at Kyonggi University.

      In the North, the development of ssirum – its English spelling there – was a priority for late founder Kim Il Sung, who set up a special department for the sport in 1946, according to documents Pyongyang submitted to Unesco.

      South Korea spends more than US$1 million (S$1.4 million) annually for its preservation, despite dwindling popularity.

      Ssireum thrived in the mid-1980s under authoritarian President Chun Doo-hwan, who sought to stabilise political unrest by diverting public attention with sports. Major televised matches captured more than half the viewing audience.

      But professional teams – sponsored by major conglomerates such as Samsung – have since disbanded, and last week a national ssireum competition saw only a handful of spectators scattered in a gymnasium in Andong.

      AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

      But for the traditional Korean wrestling ssireum, the South applied in 2016, a year after the North – which uses a different system to render Korean into English and transliterates it as ssirum.

      The rival applications will come up for consideration at a Unesco meeting in Mauritius this week. But propelled by a rapid diplomatic thaw on the peninsula, there is speculation of a first joint inscription.

      In a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Paris last month, Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay suggested that the requests be combined.

      Mr Moon has long backed engagement with the nuclear-armed North to bring it to the negotiating table, and Seoul welcomed the idea.

      “It would create new opportunities for further inter-Korea cooperation on cultural heritage,” the Cultural Heritage Administration said in a statement.

      Pyongyang has yet to make an official comment.

      Mr Chung In-kil, director-general of the South’s Korea Ssireum Association, said a joint inscription would facilitate exchanges with Pyongyang, which would be a “boon” for ongoing efforts to revitalise the little-watched sport.

      There has been only one inter-Korea ssireum competition, on the South’s Jeju island in 2003 under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun government.

      An agreement to make it a regular event fell through after conservative administrations were elected in the South with a tougher stance against the North.

      Mr Chung revealed plans to invite North Korean wrestlers to Seoul next month.

      But the Koreas’ decades-long division has seen some differences emerge in their rules and styles.

      OPPORTUNITIES FOR COOPERATION

      It would create new opportunities for further inter-Korea cooperation on cultural heritage.

      ” SOUTH KOREA’S CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION, on a joint Unesco inscription with North Korea for traditional Korean wrestling.

      In the South, the wrestlers are topless and wear only tight shorts, while in the North they don sleeveless jackets. Southern matches are held on sand, while the North uses a round mattress.

      The logistics can be adjusted simply but the Southerners would win easily, said Mr Kim Tae-woo, a coach who attended the 2003 joint event, given the “considerable difference” between them.

      “At that time, their skill level was that of a very good high school wrestler in the South,” he said last week at a national ssireum competition in Andong, some 190km south of Seoul.

      South Korean competitors welcomed the prospect. “It’s a national sport so it would be appropriate for North and South to do it together,” said Mr Kim Hyang-sik, 31. “But I do think we will win for sure.”

      AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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