This Op/Ed piece is an effort to highlight very distinct approaches to North Korea by mainly two United States Presidents - President Clinton and
President Bush. One President used diplomacy to keep the lid on North Korean nuclear weapons, the latter stonewalled and forced a confrontation no one
can afford to allow and that we face to this day.
President George H. W. Bush's watch
President George H. W. Bush
President Kim Il Sung
After the fall of the USSR the North Koreans only source of protection evapourated. In response to their new strategic weakness they endeavoured to
obtain the ultimate deterant - a nuclear weapon.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program began in earnest during the presidency of President George H. W. Bush's in 1989. U.S satellite images showed
the North Koreans were building a reprocessing plant near the North Korean town of Yongbyon. The reprocessing plant was designed to extract Plutonium
from spent fuel rods. Reprocessing plants are prohibited under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that the North Koreans signed in 1985.
Nuclear Reprocessing Plant at Yongbyon, North Korea
President Bush Sr.'s response to this was to pursue a strategy of luring North Korea into compliance of the NPT. President Bush Sr. offered progress
in diplomatic ties and normalisation of U.S-N.K relations in exchange for sticking to the NPT.
As a result of this strategy the first IAEA inspections of North Korean nuclear facilities, headed by Hans Blix, were carried out in 1992. However the
inspections did not go well with the North Koreans hampering inspections. Many believed the North Koreans to be using their compliance with the NPT as
a bargaining chip. They were right.
President Bill Clinton's watch
President Bill Clinton
In 1993 North Korea announces its intention to withdraw from the NPT. The World is shocked by the news and frantic diplomatic efforts begin. The newly
elected President Clinton tasks Robert Gallucci to start a new round of negotiations with the North Koreans to bring them back into line. President
Clinton faces increasing pressure from Republicans wanting the negotiations to cease.
After 89 days of negotiations the North Koreans announce they are suspending their withdrawal from the NPT. The treaty requires 90 days notice before
being released from the terms of the treaty. This was a direct result of President Clinton's diplomatic initiatives. However, the IAEA could not
guarantee that the North Koreans were not in violation of the NPT.
In April 1994 the North Koreans upped the stakes considerably by not allowing inspectors to monitor the transference of their irradiated fuel from
their nuclear reactor. In addition, the North Koreans threaten to reprocess the fuel giving them enough plutonium to manufacture 5 or 6 nuclear
President Clinton had a dialemma, how can he stop the North Koreans from carrying out their threat whilst maintaining any semblence of authourity
without going to War? President Clinton is a known dove and holds War as a last resort yet he orders plans for a strike on the Yongbyon reactor.
The plan called for the mobilisation of 50,000 troops to South Korea reinforcing the 37,000 U.S soldiers already in South Korea. The plan called for
400 combat jets, 50 ships, and additional battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot
air-defense missiles. The estimated death toll from North Korean reprisals are estimated to be 100,000+.
An attack on Yongbyon could only be a last resort. Yet President Clinton ordered an advanced team of 250 soldiers to South Korea to coordinate any U.S
strike on Yongbyon. President Clinton, recognising the seriousness of the situation, simulaneously presses the UN to impose sanctions on North Korea
and also opens up a secret diplomatic back-channel. He had to, the consequences of military action were just too severe.
President Jimmy Carter
The diplomatic back-channel came in the form of ex-President Jimmy Carter. He had gone to North Korea under the guise of a private venture, against
the wishes of Clinton. He was the perfect choice, as President, he advocated the removal of all U.S soldiers from South Korea. The move was fiercly
shot down but it had endeared him to North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung. Kim had actually given Carter an open invitation to visit the country any time
Clinton's opinion was that Kim Il Sung had backed himself into a corner and needed an out. Carter was his answer, he not only got Kim to back down,
he actually negotiated the outlines of an accord with the North Koreans. Live on CNN, having given President Clinton only minutes prior warning, he
announced the outlines of the accord stating that Kim "[has] given me assurance that as long as this good-faith effort is going on between the United
States and North Korea, that the inspectors will stay on site and the surveillance equipment will not be interrupted."
President Kim Jong Il
On the day the U.S negotiations began Kim Ill Sung died of a heart attack. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il. The negotiations were sucessful.
A military confrontation had been averted, the plutonium was back under international control and the accord became known as the Agreed Framework.
Under the Agreed Framework the North Koreans would renew its commitment to the NPT, shut down the Yongbyon complex, lock up the fuel rods and allow
full IAEA inspections at their nuclear facilities. In exchange the United States, in conjunction with Japan and South Korea, would provide North Korea
with two light-water nuclear reactors to help alleviate its energy problems, 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually until completion of the
light water reactors and an assurance that the United States would not invade. Note, the initial reason the North Koreans embarked on the process of
nuclear weaponisation was due to security reasons.
The accord also required that after the first reactor delivery the North Koreans would allow the intrusive IAEA inspections to begin. After the the
second reactor delivery they would ship their spent fuel rods out of the country. Effectively giving up any chance of building nuclear weapons.
Not a bad investment, two light water reactors, some oil and a promise in exchange for complete nuclear compliance from an obviously volatile
Another, less reported, section of the Agreed Framework called for the "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations." After
three months of the signing of the accord both nations were to lower trade barriers and install ambassadors in each others capitals.
Initially the North Koreans adhered to the accord, thats more than can be said of the United States. Since the Agreed Framework was an accord and not
a formal treaty Congress did not have to ratify its terms. Republicans in Congress balked at the financial investment as did the South Korean. The
reactors were never funded and steps towards normalization were never taken.
Republicans objected to what they viewed as Clintons appeasement policy towards North Korea and did not want to be seen as "rewarding bad
behaviour". That would be fine if you were dealing with a 2 year old child but is overly simplistic at an international level as can be seen by the
In December 1994 a U.S helicopter was shot down by the North Korean Army. One U.S soldier was killed and another was captured. The North Koreans
accuse them of being spies, the United States said they accidentally strayed off course during a routine training mission. The soldier is eventually
released but only after Washington expresses "sincere regret" over the accident.
In 1996 a North Korean spy submarine lands on the South Korean shore. In retaliation the South Koreans suspend their contribution of fuel under the
Agreed Framework. North Korea retaliated with the usual firey rhetoric. It later became known that at this time North Korea started to export missile
technology to Pakistan in exchange for centrifuges needed for nuclear fuel enrichment.
During this time North Korea had been enduring a major famine. The famine was the result of major economic decline and devastating weather conditions.
In 1995-96 floods destroyed 16% of all arable land and drought ravaged the west coast in 1997. According to foreign aid workers an estimated 2 million
people died from famine in North Korea during this time.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung
It looked very dark in regards to North Korea but respite came in 1998 when Kim Dae Jung was elected South Korean President. He quickly instates his
"Sunshine Policy" which advocates openness and engagement with North Korea. It assumes Kim Jong Il wants to modernize the North Korean economy and
aims to aid him in that process.
However, in a suprise move, North Korea launched a Taepodong 3-stage missile over Japan in an apparent test to prove it can reach the island nation.
The move embarrasses President Clinton who backed Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy. Clinton, at Congresses behest, opens a review into U.S relations wih
North Korea, headed by William Perry.
After more negotiations North Korea agreed to allow the U.S to inspect its suspected nuclear facility at Kumchangri in exchange for food aid. In March
1999 the U.S inspectors found no evidence of nuclear activity at the site but some sceptics claim the North Koreans removed all traces before the
In May 1999 the inspectors visit is followed by the first Presidential envoy to North Korea. William Perry meets with Kim Jong Ill and hand delivers a
letter from President Clinton. Perry tries to convince them to drop their missile and nuclear programs in exchange for a revival in attempts to
normalize relations coupled with economic relations.
Months later Perry releases the findings of his review into U.S-NK relations and finds that "the urgent focus of U.S. policy toward the DPRK must be
to end its nuclear weapons and long-range missile-related activities." He suggest a two path strategy of a gradual negotiated end to North Koreans
nuclear weapons program whilst gradually normalizing relations.
In September 1999 North Korea agreed to freeze all missile testing and President Clinton responds by easing some economic sanctions imposed on North
Korea since the 1950's Korean War.
By 2000 relations on all sides had improved dramatically. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung visited Pyongyang for the first time. Families separated
since the 1950's reunite for the first time. North and South Korea march together at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Sydney, Australia.
In October 2000 South Korean President Kim Dae Jung received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to open relations with North Korea. A direct result
of his Sunshine Policy.
A high level North Korean envoy, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, visits Washington in October 2000 and invited President Clinton to Pyongyang in an effort
to demonstrate their commitment in improving relations. Kim Jong Ill also promises to sign a treaty banning the production of long-range missiles and
the export of them. Both governments express "As a crucial first step, the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward
the other and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity."
As a result of Vice Marshal Rok's visit, U.S Secretary of State Madeleine Albright maid the advanced trip to the North Korean capital. She becomes
the highest-level U.S. official to visit North Korea since the Korean War in 1950.
The talks with Albright and her staff seem to contradict the common perception of the North Korean leader. Robert Einhorn, Clinton's Cheif North
Korean negotiator, who sat in on the talks had this to say about Kim Jong Ill. "He struck me as a very serious, rational guy who knew his issues
pretty well," Wendy Sherman, Albright's North Korean Policy coordinator, had the same impression and said "There were 14 unresolved issues, and he
sat with the secretary, answering all her questions.".
Einhorn went further saying "When Albright presented him with the questions, at first he looked a little puzzled, as if he hadn't known about them.
Albright offered to give him time to look them over, but he said, 'No, no, I can do this.' He went down the list, one by one, and gave specific
explanations. For example, on the question of missile exports, 'Yes, I mean no exports of missiles of any range.' And 'Yes, I mean to ban the
export of missile technology, not just the missiles.' On issues where it was clear he didn't want to be drawn out yet, he skipped over them. He
understood where he wanted to be clear and where he wasn't going to be."
After the Albright-Kim talks finished there was a frantic effort by the State Department to finish hammering out a final deal with the North Koreans
but time ran out. President Clinton devoted the remainder of his term trying to secure a peace deal in the Middle East. However, as President Clinton
left the Whitehouse for the last time as President the ground work was in place for a future deal with the North Koreans and the North Korean's
nuclear fuel rods were still under lock and key.
President George W. Bush's watch
President George W. Bush
A few days before President Bush took office a half dozen members of Clinton's National Security team briefed the new administration on North Korea.
Reactions were mixed at the briefing with Colin Powell showing hs eagerness to continue the work carried out by Clinton. Others such as the new
National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, were less enthused. One participant at the briefing recalls "The body language was striking, Powell was
leaning forward. Rice was very much leaning backward. Powell thought that what we had been doing formed an interesting basis for progress. He was
disabused very quickly."
With the inaugration of President George W. Bush in January 2001 hopes were high that he would finish off the groundwork started by President Clinton.
During a visit by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, Colin Powell, the new U.S Secretary of State stated "We do plan to engage with North Korea and
pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off. Some promising elements were left on the table." However Colin Powell was later
censured by President Bush and later remarked that he had leaned "too forward in my skis." It was not the first time Powell found himself out of
step with the Bush administration. He was the sole diplomat in an administration of hard-liners.
The visit by Kim Dae Jung to Washington to meet President Bush was a diplomatic disaster. Now that South Korea had a leader that was willing to
negotiate with the North the United States had a leader who was not. Bush was of the opinion that to negotiate with an "evil regime" would be to
recognize it, legitimize it, and if the negotiations led to a treaty or trade - prolong it. Bush was on the record as saying he "loathed" Kim Jong
Ill. He distrusted anyone who wanted to negotiate with the North Koreans, that included Kim Dae Jung.
Not only did President Bush distrust the Nobel Peace prize winner he viewed him with startling contempt. Charles "Jack" Pritchard, State
Department's special North Korean envoy under Bush, said "Bush's attitude toward KDJ [Kim Dae Jung] was, 'Who is this naive, old guy?'" To Bush,
Kim Dae Jung, had committed a personal snub with his pre-Washington visit to President Putin of Russia, in which he issued a joint statement endorsing
the preservation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At this time it was common knowledge President Bush intended on scrapping the ABM treaty.
As a result, when KDJ arrived in Washington D.C President Bush criticised him and his Sunshine Policy. President Bush and his advisers, notably Vice
President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had decided to not only isolate North Korea but to isolate South Korea waiting for the
election of a conservative with whom they could work with.
The Bush administration announced its intent to conduct its own review of U.S-NK relations. To reporters President Bush expresses his distrust of
North Korea saying "Part of the problem in dealing with North Korea, there's not very much transparency. We're not certain as to whether or not
they're keeping all terms of all agreements."
Stunned, the North Koreans threaten to consider restarting missile tests if the Bush administration doesnt resume diplomatic contact aimed at
normalizing relations between their two countries. The following month the U.S State Department announced that North Korea had completed another
Taepodong missile test.
After completing their policy review, the Bush administration agreed to resume talks with the North Koreans but insists on a much broader agenda. An
agenda that far extends the previously agreed issues of missile and nuclear programs. The new policy calls for reduction to North Korea's
conventional forces and an immediate resumption of IAEA inspections.
The September 11th attacks occur and fears over terrorists accquiring nuclear equipped missiles intensified.
South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun
In 2002 President Kim Dae Jung was replaced by Roh Moo Hyun as South Korean President in a landslide victory. Roh was a human rights lawyer who was
swept to power on a pro-Sunshine policy and anti-American platform. Anti-American sentiment in both North and South Korea was increasing.
During the 2002 State of the Union address President Bush declares North Korea part of an "Axis of Evil" and claims Pyongyang is "a regime arming
with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens." Bush goes further to state that the United States is prepared to act
pre-emptively to prevent the "grave and growing danger" of nuclear equiped rogue states. North Korean official newspapers declare that Bush's
speech was "little short of declaring war."
The following month, President Bush visited Seoul for the first time. He was preceeded by his assistant Secretary of State for Asian affairs, James
Kelly, who was also accompied by Charles Pritchard who recalls the mood in Seoul, "The conversation in the streets of Seoul was, 'Is there going to
be a war? What will these crazy Americans do?' Roh said to us, 'I wake up in a sweat every morning, wondering if Bush has done something
unilaterally to affect the [Korean] peninsula."
In October 3rd 2002, James Kelly visited Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans with the claim that they were secretly enriching Uranium. The Agreed
Framework centered on Plutonium enrichment but the Americans claimed that Uranium enrichment violated the spirit, if not the letter of the framework.
The next day the North Koreans admit to the secret enrichment but refuse to end it.
The admission is not publically announced for two weeks. The U.S senate was debating whether to authourise President Bush to go to war in Iraq. The
threat from Iraq supposedly trumped the threat of nuclear war from North Korea who clearly had enough plutonium for 6 nuclear weapons and the missile
delievery systems to use them. The announcement that North Korea was enriching Uranium was not publically released until the authourisation to invade
Iraq was granted. It is argued that the North Koreans were a vastly more pressing problem than Iraq yet Bush was fixated on Saddam Hussein.
Relations had now soured so much that the Agreed Framework was unraveling and it was clear that the Light Water reactors were never going to be built.
On Oct 20th President Bush formally announced the withdrawal from the Agreed Framework and urged all nations to cut off economic relations with North
Korea. In November, the U.S. Japan, and South Korea cut off all fuel oil shipments to North Korea.
Now the North Koreans have even less strategic security than they did back in 1989. Their fuel needs have been compounded and they are literally
starving to death. The North Koreans were once again boxed into a diplomatic corner, they decided to replay the crisis of 1994. In December the North
Koreans expelled the IAEA inspectors, restarted the Yongbyon reactor and opened the container of fuel rods. The following month they formally
withdrawed from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
By now the North Koreans insist that only bilateral talks between the United States will resolve the impasse. Pyongyang states that they will reverse
their decision to withdraw from the NPT and drop its declarations if the United States resumes its commitments under the Agreed Framework as well as
sign a non-aggression pledge. Bush refuses and maintains that multilateral talks including Japan, South Korea and China are the only path to
Another sign that North Korea was actively seeking a diplomatic resolution to the crisis was evident when North Korean U.N mission delegates visited
Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration. Richardson had previous experience bargaining
with the North Koreans as he was the one who travelled to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of the U.S soldier killed in the helicopter that was shot
down. He also negotiated the release of an American hiker who had accidentally crossed the North Korean border and who had been arrested as a spy.
Assuming that the use of Jimmy Carter as a diplomatic back channel was the norm in American diplomacy the North Koreans attempted to use Richardson in
a similar way. Richardson was willing to serve as an intermediary and after two days of talks at Santa Fe he stayed in touch with the Bush
administration. But the talks failed, Pritchard later recalled "The North Koreans were grasping for straws, looking for any friendly face. But they
forgot to do the math. Richardson was a Democrat, a Clinton guy. No way would Bush have anything to do with him." Einhorn agreed saying that in the
Bush administration "The default mode was skepticism about anything involving Clinton."
In Jan 13th 2003 Jim Kelly tried to keep the diplomatic life-line open for North Korea stating at a press conference in Seoul that "Once we get
beyond nuclear weapons there may be opportunities--with the United States, with private investors, with other countries--to help North Korea in the
energy area." However Kelly, like Colin Powell, was alone in his overtures to the North Koreans. He received no confirmation that his expression of
faith in diplomacy was reciprocated by the Bush administration.
Furthermore, Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, a specialist in North East Asia, testifying infront of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee said that "Our suggestion is not quite that we handle these talks multilaterally, but we have a multilateral umbrella, of any sort." The
comments reportedly infuriated President Bush who immediately ordered a ban on any public discussion of anything that might resemble one-on-one or
bilateral talks with North Korea.
President Bush's stance on North Korea was shared by Cheney and Rumsfeld who both agreed that negotiations were the wrong way to deal with such
regimes in the first place. President Bush had no desire to resume nuclear weapons talks with the North Koreans let alone about their energy needs. It
was a matter of principle for the Bush adminstration, they couldnt be seen to be negotiating with such a regime. Infact Pritchard recalled reading an
NSC memo early on in the Bush administration explicitly stating the "no negotiations policy" in an effort to maintain "moral clarity".
Due to the lack of talks or negotiations the North Koreans resumed the reprocessing of spent fuel rods. When the North Koreans threatend to do this
back in 1994 President Clinton warned that doing so would cross a "red line", when Kim Jong Il actually did it in 2003 President Bush did
In the meantime North Korea harrassed U.S spy planes off its coast and pulled out of armistice talks that had been ongoing since the end of the Korean
Asian specialists within the U.S government were flabbergasted. The reprocessing of spent fuel rods was serious, when the North Koreans had the
plutonium the strategic situation changed - permenantly. Even if the Bush administration could get the North Koreans back to the negotiating table
they could never be sure as to whether the North Koreans had disarmed. The plutonium could be stored any where in the country in underground bunkers.
Even before this latest round of reprocessing the CIA estimated the North Koreans could of produced two nuclear weapons produced from the reprocessing
between 1989 and 1994.
In March 2003 President Bush ordered several attack planes as well as B-1 and B-2 bombers to Guam. Well within range of North Korea. This was intended
to show the North Koreans that an air-strike could be forthcoming but it was too little too late. Any air-strike on the reprocessing plant would be
too late as the fuel rods could be any where by now. It was a hollow threat and Bush made no moves to support the planes in Guam, he moved no naval
assets into the area to prevent a North Korean invasion of South Korea. The offensive moves were also not accompanied by any diplomatic moves as
Clinton's were back in 1994. Two months later Bush ordered the planes back to their bases.
Why the lacklustre show of force? A senior administration official speaking to the New York Times gave an insight: "President Bush does not want to
distract international attention from Iraq."
Having defeated Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld sent President Bush a memo regarding the North Korean situation. It called for "regime change" in
North Korea (against international law btw) and Bush seemed to agree later saying to Kim Jong Il: "You're hungry and you can't eat plutonium."
It seemed that a diplomatic solution to this credible nuclear threat would not be forthcoming until April 2003 when Kelly and Pritchard were sent to
Beijing to try and arrange multilateral talks. He was ordered not to talk to the North Koreans by himself and could only talk to them in the company
of other delegates. During this visit Li Gun, the North Korean Foreign Minister, announced that North Korea had nuclear weapons as a "deterent". He
said they would not be given up until the U.S gave up its "hostile attitude" to North Korea. On returning to Washington Pritchard told of how the
North Koreans had a "bold, new proposal", a proposal that said they would give up their nuclear weapons for a formal non-aggression pact with
Washington. President Bush dismissed the proposal out of hand saying to a reporter "They're back to the old blackmail game."
By August it was clear that the Bush administrations strategy of destabilizing North Korea would not work, as was the North Koreans attempts to get
bi-lateral talks. As a rare compromise both countries agreed to "six party talks" involving Russia, China, Japan, South Korea. For the first time at
these talks Kelly was allowed to talk one on one with North Korean delegates but only in the same room as the other delegates (no secret one on ones)
and had to start his 20-minute-only talk with "This is not a negotiating session. This is not an official meeting."
Since the Bush administration came to power the State Department had pursued a diplomatic route whereas the Pentagon and the NSC opposed it. Bush's
compromise, the six party talks, took the middle road and failed completely. He allowed Kelly to talk but not to say anything meaningful. He allowed
him to go to the table but not to put anything on it. Is it any wonder the six party talks were scrapped?
During the talks the rhetoric coming out of Washington did nothing to help. Undersecretary of State John Bolton was quoted as saying life inside North
Korea was "a hellish nightmare" and that Kim Jong Il was a "a tyrannical dictator." Hardly the statements to make when your country is engaging in
6 party negotations however true they maybe!
Around this time Pritchard quit his position in the U.S government stating "My position was the State Department's envoy for North Korean
negotiations, yet we were prohibited from having negotiations," He later found out the Bush administration hadnt wanted him to partake in the 6 party
talks lest he take them too seriously. Pritchard was told that they referred to him as "the Clinton guy." Powell, Pritchards sole backer in the
administration, pleaded for him not to quit, or to do it less publically. He stayed on to secure another round of talks in August then resigned.
The next round of talks eventually stalled and North Korea still refuses to partake in them until the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice aplogises
for refering to North Korea as "an outpost of tyranny". The Bush administration refuses.
Just last month North Korea launched another Taepodong missile into the Sea of Japan. It also plans on a nuclear weapons test in the near future.
North Korean - U.S relations have never been worse.
Whilst this was a long Op/Ed I think the basis for a possible nuclear war warrants an indepth look into how differing attitudes from more than one U.S
President have worked. Its interesting to see how the North Koreans operate and how best to avoid a nuclear show down. The situation we are in now is
We find ourselves with a nuclear armed North Korea, starving, with inadequate energy supplies, isolated, fearful of its national security and the Bush
administration can only resort to venemous invectives.
Some conservatives see President Bush's refusal to negotiate with North Korea as a virtue. I see it as the sure fire way to endanger U.S national
Did they not learn anything from how to get the best out of the North Koreans from Clinton? At least his "appeasment" got nuclear disarmament and
complete IAEA inspections of North Korea. What has Bush's stonewalling and refusal to negotiate got us?
Plans for pre-emptive nuclear strikes on North Korea thats what the Bush administration views as the best course of action. Rather than lose "moral
clarity" they entertain the notion of nuclear warfare. That speaks volumes for the mentality of the Bush administration.
Do you think nuclear war, not just in North Korea, is a better option than coughing up some money and negotiating? Do you think Bush knows the exact
location of their Nuclear Weapons any way? Do you think a nuclear strike will end North Korea's nuclear weapons? I think not, I think after the first
U.S nuclear missile is launched, all rationality and all bets are off. Nuclear weapons launched by North Korea, or sold to terrorists - its all
Who's aproach was best for U.S National Security and the Security and stability of the World at large? You be the judge.
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[edit on 18/5/05 by subz]