Tokyo North Korea declared Tuesday it has a right to carry out long-range missile tests, despite international calls for the communist state to refrain from launching a rocket believed capable of reaching the United States.
The reclusive nation is thought to be making final preparations for a test of the Taepodong-2, with a range of up to 9,300 miles.
In Washington, defense officials said the Bush administration was weighing responses that include attempting to shoot the missile down in flight over the Pacific.
The U.S. military Tuesday moved ships into position off the coast of North Korea to detect the launch of any long-range ballistic missiles and prepared its new, unproven missile-interception system to attempt a response if necessary, even though such an act would be unprecedented and is not considered the likeliest scenario.
Because North Korea is secretive about its missile operations, U.S. officials say they must consider the possibility that an anticipated test would turn out to be something else, such as a space launch or even an attack.
The United States and Japan have said they could consider sanctions against the impoverished state and push the U.N. Security Council for retaliatory action should the launch go ahead. Pyongyang demonstrated its ability to hit Tokyo when it fired a missile over northern Japan into the Pacific in 1998.
"This issue concerns our autonomy. Nobody has a right to slander that right," the Kyodo News agency quoted North Korean Foreign Ministry official Ri Pyong Dok as telling Japanese reporters.
Kyodo also quoted Ri as saying the North is not bound by the joint declaration at international nuclear disarmament talks last year or a missile moratorium agreed to by Tokyo and Pyongyang in 2002. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reaffirmed the moratorium - in practice since 1999 - in 2004.
Ri told reporters his remarks represented Pyongyang's official line on the matter, but refused to comment on whether the North would push ahead with the missile test, saying it was inappropriate for a diplomat to give further information.
The harsh rhetoric could sour hopes that North Korea might scuttle the test in the face of international criticism. But it was unclear whether the comments indicated a willingness to go ahead with the launch, or reflected North Korea's penchant for threatening bluster as a bargaining tactic.
Information on the test preparation remained scant and contradictory Tuesday. Especially unclear is whether Pyongyang has completed injecting fuel into the missile - a move some experts consider irreversible and a clear sign the country intends to launch.