Economy of South Korea

Economy of South Korea
Currency South Korean won (KRW)
calendar year
Trade organisations
GDP Nominal: $1.376 trillion (projected numbers)[1] (2015)
PPP: $1.848 trillion (2015)
GDP rank 11th (nominal) / 13th (PPP)
GDP growth
2.6% (2015)
GDP per capita

USD $27,195 / KRW ₩30,681,800 (nominal, IMF, 2015 est.)

$36,511 (PPP, IMF, 2015 est.)
GDP by sector
Agriculture: 2.6%, industry: 39.2%, services: 58.2% (2010)
1.1%,[2] Jan 2014
Population below poverty line
15% (below income of 19,179 USD 2007 est.)[3]
30.2 (2015)[4]
Labour force
25.18 million (2012 est.)
Labour force by occupation
Agriculture: 6.4%, industry: 24.2%, services: 69.4% (2011 est.)
Unemployment 3.1% (Oct. 2015)[5]
Main industries
Electronics, telecommunications, automobile production, chemicals, shipbuilding, steel
Exports $526.76 billion (6th)(2015) [7]
Export goods
semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, computers, steel, ships, petrochemicals
Main export partners
 China 25.4%
 United States 12.3%
 Japan 5.6%
 Hong Kong 4.8%
 Singapore 4.2% (2014 est.)[8]
Imports $542.9 billion (7th; 2014 est.)
Import goods
machinery, electronics and electronic equipment, oil, steel, transport equipment, organic chemicals, plastics
Main import partners
 China 17.1%
 Japan 10.2%
 United States 8.7%
 Saudi Arabia 7%
 Qatar 4.9%
 Germany 4.1% (2014 est.)[9]
$430.9 billion (31 December 2011 est.)
Public finances
33.7% of GDP (2012 est.)
Revenues $296.1 billion (2013 est.)
Expenses $287.2 billion (2013 est.)
Economic aid ODA, $900 million (donor) (2009)[10]
aid to North Korea excluded
Foreign reserves
$368.1 billion (November 5, 2015 est.)[13]
Main data source: CIA World Fact Book
All values, unless otherwise stated, are in US dollars.

The economy of South Korea is the fourth largest economy in Asia and the 11th largest in the world. It is a mixed economy[14][15][16] dominated by family-owned conglomerates called chaebols, however, the dominance of chaebol is unlikely and at risk to support the transformation of Korean economy for the future generations.[17][18][19] South Korea is famous for its spectacular rise from one of the poorest countries in the world to a developed, high-income country in just one generation. This economic miracle, commonly known as the Miracle on the Han River,[20] brought South Korea to the ranks of elite countries in the OECD and the G-20. South Korea still remains one of the fastest growing developed countries in the world following the Great Recession. It is included in the group of Next Eleven countries that will dominate the global economy in the middle of the 21st century.

By creating favorable policy directive for economic development as preceded by Japanese economic recovery[21] as the logistic supplying bastion for American troops in the Korean peninsula during and after the Korean War,[22] South Korea's rigorous education system and the establishment of a highly motivated and educated populace is largely responsible for spurring the country's high technology boom and rapid economic development.[23] Having almost no natural resources and always suffering from overpopulation in its small territory, which deterred continued population growth and the formation of a large internal consumer market, South Korea adapted an export-oriented economic strategy to fuel its economy, and in 2014, South Korea was the seventh largest exporter and seventh largest importer in the world. Bank of Korea and Korea Development Institute periodically release major economic indicators and economic trends of the economy of South Korea.[24][25]

In the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the South Korean economy suffered a liquidity crisis[26] and relied on the bailout by the IMF that restructured and modernized the South Korean economy with successive DJnomics policy by President Kim Dae Jung,[27][28][29] including the resultant of the national development of the ICT industry.[30] Historically, subsidies were used as means of speeding up adoption of new technology in Korea and has ultimately helped the adoption and development of faster mobile standards for the economy of South Korea.[31] The growth of ICT industry has been far concentrated on the hardware sector, which focuses on expanding wired and wireless telecommunication network penetration rather than the software sector, which creates innovative applications and value-added services.[32] The economy of South Korea is the global leader of consumer electronics,[33] mobile broadband[34][35] and smartphones.[36] South Korea's LCD TV global market share also jumped to 37 percent in 2009, from 27 percent at the end of 2007, and it will soon replace Japan as the world’s number-one LCD TV supplier.[37] The economy of South Korea ranks No.1 in the world in ICT Development Index 2015 [38] and 2015 Bloomberg Innovation Index.[39]

Despite the South Korean economy's high growth potential and apparent structural stability, South Korea suffers perpetual damage to its credit rating in the stock market due to the belligerence of North Korea in times of deep military crises, which has an adverse effect on the financial markets of the South Korean economy.[40][41] However, renowned financial organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, also compliment the resilience of the South Korean economy against various economic crises, citing low state debt, and high fiscal reserves that can quickly be mobilized to address any expected financial emergencies.[42] Other financial organizations like the World Bank describe Korea as one of the fastest-growing major economies of the next generation along with BRIC and Indonesia.[43] South Korea was one of the few developed countries that was able to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis,[44] and its economic growth rate will reach 6.1% in 2010,[45] a sharp recovery from economic growth rates of 2.3% in 2008 and 0.2% in 2009 when the global financial crisis hit. The South Korean economy again recovered with the record-surplus of US$70.7 billion mark of the current account in the end of 2013, up 47 percent growth from 2012, amid uncertainties of the global economic turmoil, with major economic output being the technology products exports.[46]

South Korea was a historical recipient of official development assistance (ODA) from OECD. Throughout the 1980s until the mid-1990s, South Korea's economic prosperity as measured in GDP by PPP per capita was still only a fraction of industrialized nations.[47] In 1980, the South Korean GDP per capita was $2,300, about one-third of nearby developed Asian economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. Since then, South Korea has advanced into a developed economy to eventually attain a GDP per capita of $30,000 in 2010, almost thirteen times the figure thirty years ago. The whole country's GDP increased from $88 billion to $1,460 billion in the same time frame.[48] In 2009, South Korea officially became the first major recipient of ODA to have ascended to the status of a major donor of ODA.[10] Between 2008 and 2009, South Korea donated economic aid of $1.7 billion to countries other than North Korea. South Korea's separate annual economic aid to North Korea has historically been more than twice its ODA.[49]

On June 23, 2012, South Korea is landmarked to become the 7th member of the 20-50 club (with the population surpassing 50 million and maintaining per capita income of US$20,000), chronologically, after Japan, United States of America, France, Italy, Germany and United Kingdom.[50] A free trade agreement between the United States of America and the Republic of Korea was concluded on April 1, 2007. The European Union–South Korea Free Trade Agreement was signed on 15 October 2009. The South Korean economy is heavily dependent on the energy imports and the related refinery technologies [51][52][53] in association with the Ministry of Knowledge Economy [54] and in accordance with the South Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement.[55] The Canada–South Korea Free Trade Agreement was concluded in 2014. China–South Korea Free Trade Agreement went official on November 10, 2014. South Korea has the largest indoor Amusement park in the world, Lotte World, adding to the notable export-oriented music industry[56][57] guided by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea[58] (for more, see Korea K-Pop Hot 100).


Historical growth of the South Korean economy from 1961-2015


Following the Korean War, South Korea remained one of the poorest countries in the world for over a decade. In 1960 its gross domestic product per capita was $79,[59] lower than that of some sub-Saharan countries.[60] The growth of the industrial sector was the principal stimulus to economic development. In 1986, manufacturing industries accounted for approximately 30 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 25 percent of the work force. Benefiting from strong domestic encouragement and foreign aid, Seoul's industrialists introduced modern technologies into outmoded or newly built facilities at a rapid pace, increased the production of commodities—especially those for sale in foreign markets—and plowed the proceeds back into further industrial expansion. As a result, industry altered the country's landscape, drawing millions of laborers to urban manufacturing centers.

A downturn in the South Korean economy in 1989 spurred by a sharp decrease in exports and foreign orders caused deep concern in the industrial sector. Ministry of Trade and Industry analysts stated that poor export performance resulted from structural problems embedded in the nation's economy, including an overly strong won, increased wages and high labor costs, frequent strikes, and high interest rates. The result was an increase in inventories and severe cutbacks in production at a number of electronics, automobile, and textile manufacturers, as well as at the smaller firms that supplied the parts. Factory automation systems were introduced to reduce dependence on labor, to boost productivity with a much smaller work force, and to improve competitiveness. It was estimated that over two-thirds of South Korea's manufacturers spent over half of the funds available for facility investments on automation. Currently, Korea is a developed country with a developed market.

Rapid growth from 1960s to 1980s

South Korea's real gross domestic product expanded by an average of more than 8 percent per year, from US$2.7 billion in 1962[61] to US$230 billion in 1989,[62] breaking the trillion dollar mark in 2006. Nominal GDP per capita grew from $103.88 in 1962[63] to $5,438.24 in 1989,[64] reaching the $20,000 milestone in 2006. The manufacturing sector grew from 14.3 percent of the GNP in 1962 to 30.3 percent in 1987. Commodity trade volume rose from US$480 million in 1962 to a projected US$127.9 billion in 1990. The ratio of domestic savings to GNP grew from 3.3 percent in 1962 to 35.8 percent in 1989.

The most significant factor in rapid industrialization was the adoption of an outward-looking strategy in the early 1960s. This strategy was particularly well-suited to that time because of South Korea's poor natural resource endowment, low savings rate, and tiny domestic market. The strategy promoted economic growth through labor-intensive manufactured exports, in which South Korea could develop a competitive advantage. Government initiatives played an important role in this process. Through the model of export-led industrialization, the South Korean government incentivized corporations to develop new technology and upgrade productive efficiency in order to compete in the highly-competitive, global market.[65] By adhering to state regulations and demands, firms were awarded subsidization and investment support to rapidly develop their export markets in the fast-paced, evolving international arena.[65] In addition, the inflow of foreign capital was greatly encouraged to supplement the shortage of domestic savings. These efforts enabled South Korea to achieve rapid growth in exports and subsequent increases in income.

By emphasizing the industrial sector, Seoul's export-oriented development strategy left the rural sector relatively underdeveloped. Except for mining, most industries were located in the urban areas of the northwest and southeast. Heavy industries generally were located in the south of the country. Factories in Seoul contributed over 25 percent of all manufacturing value-added in 1978; taken together with factories in surrounding Gyeonggi Province, factories in the Seoul area produced 46 percent of all manufacturing that year. Factories in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province employed 48 percent of the nation's 2.1 million factory workers. Increasing income disparity between the industrial and agricultural sectors became a serious problem by the 1970s and remained a problem, despite government efforts to raise farm income and improve rural living standards.

In the early 1980s, in order to control inflation, a conservative monetary policy and tight fiscal measures were adopted. Growth of the money supply was reduced from the 30 percent level of the 1970s to 15 percent. Seoul even froze its budget for a short while. Government intervention in the economy was greatly reduced and policies on imports and foreign investment were liberalized to promote competition. To reduce the imbalance between rural and urban sectors, Seoul expanded investments in public projects, such as roads and communications facilities, while further promoting farm mechanization.[66]

The measures implemented early in the decade, coupled with significant improvements in the world economy, helped the South Korean economy regain its lost momentum in the late 1980s. South Korea achieved an average of 9.2 percent real growth between 1982 and 1987 and 12.5 percent between 1986 and 1988. The double-digit inflation of the 1970s was brought under control. Wholesale price inflation averaged 2.1 percent per year from 1980 through 1988; consumer prices increased by an average of 4.7 percent annually. Seoul achieved its first significant surplus in its balance of payments in 1986 and recorded a US$7.7 billion and a US$11.4 billion surplus in 1987 and 1988 respectively. This development permitted South Korea to begin reducing its level of foreign debt. The trade surplus for 1989, however, was only US$4.6 billion, and a small negative balance was projected for 1990.

1990s and the Asian Financial Crisis

For the first half of the 1990s, the South Korean economy continued a stable and strong growth in both private consumption and GDP. Things changed quickly in 1997 with the Asian Financial crisis. After several other Asian currencies were attacked by speculators, the Korean won started to heavily depreciate in October 1997.[67] The problem was exacerbated by the problem of non-performing loans at many of Korea's merchant banks. By December 1997, the IMF had approved a USD $21 billion loan, that would be part of a USD $58.4 billion bailout plan.[67] By January 1998, the government had shut down a third of Korea's merchant banks.[67] Throughout 1998, Korea's economy would continue to shrink quarterly at an average rate of -6.65%.[67] Korean chaebol Daewoo became a casualty of the crisis as it was dismantled by the government in 1999 due to debt problems. American company General Motors managed to purchase the motors division. Indian conglomerate Tata Group, purchased the trucks and heavy vehicles division of Daewoo.[67]

Actions by the South Korean government and debt swaps by international lenders contained the country's financial problems. Much of South Korea's recovery from the Asian Financial Crisis can be attributed to labor adjustments (i.e. a dynamic and productive labor market with flexible wage rates) and alternative funding sources.[67] By the first quarter of 1999, GDP growth had risen to 5.4%, and strong growth thereafter combined with deflationary pressure on the currency led to a yearly growth of 10.5%. In December 1999, president Kim Dae-jung declared the currency crisis over.[67]


Korea's economy moved away from the centrally planned, government-directed investment model toward a more market-oriented one. These economic reforms, pushed by President Kim Dae-jung, helped Korea maintain one of Asia's few expanding economies, with growth rates of 10.8% in 1999 and 9.2% in 2000. Growth fell back to 3.3% in 2001 because of the slowing global economy, falling exports, and the perception that much-needed corporate and financial reforms have stalled.

After the bounce back from the crisis of the late nineties, the economy continued strong growth in 2000 with a GDP growth of 9.08%.[67] However, the South Korean economy was affected by the September 11 Attacks. The slowing global economy, falling exports, and the perception that corporate and financial reforms had stalled caused growth to fall back to 3.8% in 2001[68] Thanks to industrialization GDP per hour worked (labor output) more than tripled from US$2.80 in 1963 to US$10.00 in 1989.[68] More recently the economy stabilized and maintain a growth rate between 4-5% from 2003 onwards.[68]

Led by industry and construction, growth in 2002 was 5.8%, despite anemic global growth. The restructuring of Korean conglomerates (chaebols), bank privatization, and the creation of a more liberalized economy—with a mechanism for bankrupt firms to exit the market—remain Korea's most important unfinished reform tasks. Growth slowed again in 2004, but production expanded 5% in 2006, due to popular demand for key export products such as HDTVs and mobile phones.

Like most industrialized economies, Korea suffered significant setbacks during the late-2000s recession that began in 2007. Growth fell by 3.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008 from the previous quarter, the first negative quarterly growth in 10 years, with year on year quarterly growth continuing to be negative into 2009.[69] Most sectors of the economy reported declines, with manufacturing dropping 25.6% as of January 2009, and consumer goods sales dropping 3.1%.[69] Exports in autos and semiconductors, two critical pillars of the economy, shrank 55.9% and 46.9% respectively, while exports overall fell by a record 33.8% in January, and 18.3% in February 2009 year on year.[70] As in the 1997 crisis, Korea's currency also experienced massive fluctuations, declining by 34% against the dollar.[70] Annual growth in the economy slowed to 2.3% in 2008, and was expected to drop to as low as -4.5% by Goldman Sachs,[71] but South Korea was able to limit the downturn to a near standstill at 0.2% in 2009.[72]

Despite the global financial crisis, the South Korean economy, helped by timely stimulus measures and strong domestic consumption of products that compensated for a drop in exports,[73] was able to avoid a recession unlike most industrialized economies, posting positive economic growth for two consecutive years of the crisis. In 2010, South Korea made a strong economic rebound with a growth rate of 6.1%, signaling a return of the economy to pre-crisis levels. South Korea's export has recorded $424 billion in the first eleven months of the year 2010, already higher than its export in the whole year of 2008. The South Korean economy of the 21st century, as a Next Eleven economy, is expected to grow from 3.9% to 4.2% annually between 2011 and 2030,[74] similar to growth rates of developing countries such as Brazil or Russia.[75]

The South Korean government signed the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) on December 5, 2013, with the Australian government seeking to benefit its numerous industries—including automotive, services, and resources and energy—and position itself alongside competitors, such as the US and ASEAN.[76] South Korea is Australia’s third largest export market and fourth largest trading partner with a 2012 trade value of A$32 billion. The agreement contains an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause that permits legal action from South Korean corporations against the Australian government if their trade rights are infringed upon.[77]

The government cut the work week from six days to five in phases, from 2004 to 2011, depending on the size of the firm.[78] The number of public holidays was expanded to 16 by 2013.[79]

High-tech industries in the 1990s and 2000s

A Hyundai automobile. The automotive line is a key sector in South Korea's industry.

In 1990, South Korean manufacturers planned a significant shift in future production plans toward high-technology industries. In June 1989, panels of government officials, scholars, and business leaders held planning sessions on the production of such goods as new materials, mechatronics—including industrial robotics—bioengineering, microelectronics, fine chemistry, and aerospace. This shift in emphasis, however, did not mean an immediate decline in heavy industries such as automobile and ship production, which had dominated the economy in the 1980s.

South Korea relies largely upon exports to fuel the growth of its economy, with finished products such as electronics, textiles, ships, automobiles, and steel being some of its most important exports. Although the import market has liberalized in recent years, the agricultural market has remained largely protectionist due to serious disparities in the price of domestic agricultural products such as rice with the international market. As of 2005, the price of rice in South Korea is about four times that of the average price of rice on the international market, and it was generally feared that opening the agricultural market would have disastrous effects upon the South Korean agricultural sector. In late 2004, however, an agreement was reached with the WTO in which South Korean rice imports will gradually increase from 4% to 8% of consumption by 2014. In addition, up to 30% of imported rice will be made available directly to consumers by 2010, where previously imported rice was only used for processed foods. Following 2014, the South Korean rice market will be fully opened.

Additionally, South Korea today is known as a Launchpad of a mature mobile market, where developers can reap benefits of a market where very few technology constraints exist. There is a growing trend of inventions of new types of media or apps, utilizing the 4G and 5G internet infrastructure in South Korea. South Korea has today the infrastructures to meet a density of population and culture that has the capability to create strong local particularity.[80]

South Korea Export Treemap by Product (2014) from Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity



Shipbuilding is a flagship industry of South Korea that boomed since the 1960s.

During the 1970s and 1980s, South Korea became a leading producer of ships, including oil supertankers, and oil-drilling platforms. The country's major shipbuilder was Hyundai, which built a 1-million-ton capacity drydock at Ulsan in the mid-1970s. Daewoo joined the shipbuilding industry in 1980 and finished a 1.2-million-ton facility at Okpo on Geoje Island, south of Busan, in mid-1981. The industry declined in the mid-1980s because of the oil glut and because of a worldwide recession. There was a sharp decrease in new orders in the late 1980s; new orders for 1988 totaled 3 million gross tons valued at US$1.9 billion, decreases from the previous year of 17.8 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively. These declines were caused by labor unrest, Seoul's unwillingness to provide financial assistance, and Tokyo's new low-interest export financing in support of Japanese shipbuilders. However, the South Korean shipping industry was expected to expand in the early 1990s because older ships in world fleets needed replacing.[81] South Korea eventually became the world's dominant shipbuilder with a 50.6% share of the global shipbuilding market as of 2008. Notable Korean shipbuilders are Hyundai Heavy Industries, Samsung Heavy Industries, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, and the now bankrupt STX Offshore & Shipbuilding.


The automobile industry was one of South Korea's major growth and export industries in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, the capacity of the South Korean motor industry had increased more than fivefold since 1984; it exceeded 1 million units in 1988. Total investment in car and car-component manufacturing was over US$3 billion in 1989. Total production (including buses and trucks) for 1988 totaled 1.1 million units, a 10.6 percent increase over 1987, and grew to an estimated 1.3 million vehicles (predominantly passenger cars) in 1989. Almost 263,000 passenger cars were produced in 1985—a figure that grew to approximately 846,000 units in 1989. In 1988 automobile exports totaled 576,134 units, of which 480,119 units (83.3 percent) were sent to the United States. Throughout most of the late 1980s, much of the growth of South Korea's automobile industry was the result of a surge in exports; 1989 exports, however, declined 28.5 percent from 1988. This decline reflected sluggish car sales to the United States, especially at the less expensive end of the market, and labor strife at home.[82] South Korea today has developed into one of the world's largest automobile producers. Hyundai Kia Automotive Group is Korea's largest automaker.


Most of the mineral deposits in the Korean Peninsula are located in North Korea, with the South only possessing an abundance of tungsten and graphite. Coal, iron ore, and molybdenum are found in South Korea, but not in large quantities and mining operations are on a small scale. Much of South Korea's minerals and ore are imported from other countries. Most South Korean coal is low-grade anthracite that is only used for heating homes and boilers.


Construction has been an important South Korean export industry since the early 1960s and remains a critical source of foreign currency and invisible export earnings. By 1981 overseas construction projects, most of them in the Middle East, accounted for 60 percent of the work undertaken by South Korean construction companies. Contracts that year were valued at US$13.7 billion. In 1988, however, overseas construction contracts totaled only US$2.6 billion (orders from the Middle East were US$1.2 billion), a 1 percent increase over the previous year, while new orders for domestic construction projects totaled US$13.8 billion, an 8.8 percent increase over 1987.

Breakwater Construction in Seosan coast (1984)

South Korean construction companies therefore concentrated on the rapidly growing domestic market in the late 1980s. By 1989 there were signs of a revival of the overseas construction market: the Dong Ah Construction Company signed a US$5.3 billion contract with Libya to build the second phase (and other subsequent phases) of Libya's Great Man-Made River Project, with a projected cost of US$27 billion when all 5 phases were completed. South Korean construction companies signed over US$7 billion of overseas contracts in 1989.[83] Korea's largest construction companies include Samsung C&T Corporation, which built some of the highest building's and most noteworthy skyscrapers such as three consecutively world's tallest buildings: Petronas Towers, Taipei 101, and Burj Khalifa.[84][85]


Korea's remarkable technological advancements and industrialization allowed Korea to produce increasingly advanced military equipment.

During the 1960s, South Korea was largely dependent on the United States to supply its armed forces, but after the elaboration of President Richard M. Nixon's policy of Vietnamization in the early 1970s, South Korea began to manufacture many of its own weapons.[86]

Since the 1980s, South Korea, now in possession of more modern military technology than in previous generations, has actively begun shifting its defense industry's areas of interest more from its previously homeland defense-oriented militarization efforts, to the promotion of military equipment and technology as mainstream products of exportation to boost its international trade. Some of its key military export projects include the T-155 Firtina self-propelled artillery for Turkey; the K11 air-burst rifle for United Arab Emirates; the Bangabandhu class guided-missile frigate for Bangladesh; fleet tankers such as Sirius class for the navies of Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela; Makassar class amphibious assault ships for Indonesia; and the KT-1 trainer aircraft for Turkey, Indonesia and Peru

South Korea has also outsourced its defense industry to produce various core components of other countries' advanced military hardware. Those hardware include modern aircraft such as F-15K fighters and AH-64 attack helicopters which will be used by Singapore, whose airframes will be built by Korea Aerospace Industries in a joint-production deal with Boeing.[87] In other major outsourcing and joint-production deals, South Korea has jointly produced the S-300 air defense system of Russia via Samsung Group, and will facilitate the sales of Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Russia that will be produced by STX Corporation.[88] South Korea's defense exports were $1.03 billion in 2008 and $1.17 billion in 2009.[89]


In 2012, 11.1 million foreign tourists visited South Korea, making it the 20th most visited country in the world,[90] up from 8.5 million in 2010.[91] Recently, the number of tourists, especially from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia, has grown dramatically due to the increased popularity of the Korean Wave (Hallyu).

Seoul is the principal tourist destination for visitors; popular tourist destinations outside of Seoul include Seorak-san national park, the historic city of Gyeongju and semi-tropical Jeju Island. In 2014 South Korea hosted the League of Legends season 4 championship.

See also

References and notes

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

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Further reading

External links

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