Margin of Error

MARGIN OF ERROR….Another mini-uproar with (about?) North Korea ensues. Or perhaps more than one, if the media have their way.

Helene Cooper, or rather the editor who wrote the headline on her article, leads the media faction. Looky looky, the numbers don’t match! American intelligence agencies estimated that North Korea had produced 40 to 50 kilograms of plutonium, but the documents handed over by the North Koreans list 37 kilograms.

The American intelligence estimates were constantly on the high side; not excessively so, but with appropriate caution. The size of the Yongbyon reactor is such-and-such, a reasonable range of loading with uranium (take the higher number), left in the reactor for an optimal time, reprocessed so as to retrieve every atom of plutonium. It’s the calculation anyone would make in their place, but it’s most likely going to be higher, rather than lower, although in the right range. If we put 37 next to 50, that’s the way it looks. If we put 37 next to 40, the lower end of the intelligence estimates, we can call it right on.

As Cooper notes, it’s appropriate also to be skeptical of the North Korean documents, but this is close enough for now. As negotiations proceed, the numbers (on both sides) will have to be brought closer.

The discrepancy, if we can call it that, is fodder for the end-negotiations-now faction in the administration, of course.

Meanwhile, Charles Pritchard, who has visited North Korea many times, including their nuclear installations, reports that the North Koreans will give up their reactor but not their nuclear weapons. Of course they are saying this. It is their way of negotiating, and not the worst obstacle they have put up. It looks like they want light-water civilian-style reactors in exchange for the weapons. That’s not impossible.

It may well be that North Korea’s latest bargaining point derives from their ever-present fear of being dissed. They’re upset at a State Department report that called North Korea a “militarized society” and “dictatorship.” So they react by hardening their position. They’ve done it before.

It’s positive that the administration is reacting strongly to Pritchard’s revelation. It looks like they’re trying to get out ahead of their end-negotiations-now faction.

Ambassador Christopher Hill seems to have this negotiation thing right. His comments have been calm and oriented toward moving forward.

So much of the negotiations with North Korea is reported so quickly that it’s a fascinating study in what diplomacy and negotiation require. And it’s one place in which the Bush administration seems to be rising to that challenge.