SEOUL — A panel discussion at Friday’s final day of the Asia Society’s annual economic summit highlighted what some observers say are the two forces working at cross purposes in the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

On one end of the stage sat Thomas Hubbard, U.S. ambassador to South Korea, insisting that the North abandon its nuclear weapons program before any talk of aid could be broached.

At the other sat South Korea’s unification minister and two academic experts on the Pyongyang regime, claiming economic engagement is the surest and safest route toward convincing the North to give up its efforts at building weapons of mass destruction.

The question, essentially, was what comes first: the carrot or the stick?

“I don’t think the differences are as stark as presented,” Hubbard told audience members. “But there is a fundamental difference. The North Korea problem for the rest of the world is seen as a security problem. But for South Korea, it is seen as an economic issue.”

The bottom line, he said, is that “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is in everyone’s interests, including the North Koreans.”

Hubbard backed the Bush administration’s insistence on having only multilateral talks with North Korea. This week, preliminary meetings on the next round of six-nation talks — including Japan, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea and the United States — got under way in Beijing.

While acknowledging that a strong deterrent against North Korea was necessary, South Korea’s unification minister said the problem was economic at base.

“North Korea finds itself in a dilemma. It must change while maintaining its regime. It is our belief that the best way to promote change is economic development,” Jeong Se-hyun said. “We must induce North Korea to cooperate.

“The trends of change in North Korea are irreversible. Economic changes will lead to cultural and social changes, leading to changes in the military situation.”

Kongdan Oh, of the South Korean Institute for Defense Analysis, put a more pessimistic spin on the short-term prospects.

“Both sides,” she said, referring to the United States and North Korea, “want the other to go first. The widening gaps have no meeting point.”

In the long-term view, she said, “all the pieces of the puzzle are already on the table. They are just waiting to be put into place.”

According to the Unification Ministry, trade between North and South Korea amounted to some $700 million last year. That figure is almost double what it was just three years ago. And trade between North Korea and the rest of the world barely tops $2 billion a year, the majority with China.

The question was raised: What does impoverished North Korea have to trade or export?

“Agricultural products … fisheries … also … well, there is not much to sell at this moment,” a staff member from the Unification Ministry said toward the end of the panel discussion.

But an audience member quickly reminded the assembled delegates why the security situation was the main topic of discussion.

“What they sell,” the man said, “is missiles.”

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