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NORTH KOREAN TRANSFER OF POWER NEAR? North Korea's decision to send a special envoy to China signals an imminent announcement of a new leader in the Stalinist state, diplomats and analysts in Seoul said yesterday. North Korea said Tuesday it was sending Vice Foreign Minister Song Ho Gyong to China as a special envoy. ``Song will be making the first public and official visit to Beijing by a senior North Korean official since the death of Kim Il Sung. This appears to be the completion of reshuffling in North Korea's hierarchy,'' an Asian diplomat said. China is the isolated North's last remaining major ally, and its blessing of the communist world's first dynastic succession is seen as vital to Kim Jong Il, who lacks his father's charisma. US indicators unchanged

The US government's chief forecasting gauge of future economic activity was unchanged in July after increasing by modest amounts the previous two months, the government said yesterday. Meanwhile, orders to US factories fell 2.3 percent in July, the first decline in five months and the biggest drop in 2-1/2 years. The Commerce Department said that the decrease in the indicator of manufacturing plans - only the second in the last 12 months - was led by a sharp drop in orders for automobiles as many carmakers shut down plants for two weeks. Russian oil venture

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Conoco Inc., a unit of DuPont Company, said yesterday it started producing its first barrel of crude oil from an oil field in the Russian arctic tundra.

The Houston-based company said the Polar Lights project in Northern Russia's Timan Pechora Basin, located 1,000 miles from Moscow, is a 50-50 venture. Hong Kong setback

Fulfilling earlier threats, Chinese legislators voted yesterday to disband Hong Kong's legislature and other elected institutions when the colony reverts to Chinese rule in 1997. The vote means that democratic reforms implemented in Hong Kong by Gov. Chris Patten are unlikely to survive the takeover. The reforms will allow Hong Kong citizens, for the first time, to choose, directly or indirectly, all their legislators in elections next year - the last to be held under British rule. Japan satellite fails

Japan's space agency said yesterday it was abandoning attempts to put into orbit an experimental satellite launched by its home-grown H2 rocket. The setback occurred after engines supposed to guide the satellite onto a geostationary orbit failed to fire sufficiently for the second day running. Warning shots fired

A Russian patrol vessel fired warning shots at three Japanese fishing boats headed for Russian territorial waters yesterday, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. Two weeks ago, Russian patrol ships in the same area near the disputed Kuril Islands opened fire on Japanese boats and wounded a Japanese crewman, who later admitted poaching in Russian waters.

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