The United States has activated its missile defense system to deal with a possible North Korean missile test, Kyodo News agency reported Tuesday, citing a report.
The U.S. is considering intercepting the missile if North Korea goes ahead with the test, Kyodo said, quoting The Washington Times.
The report came after Pyongyang declared Tuesday it is free to conduct missile tests despite a self-imposed moratorium, saying it is not bound by prior agreements and that outsiders have no right to criticize its actions.
"This issue concerns our autonomy. Nobody has a right to slander that right," Japan's Kyodo News agency quoted North Korean Foreign Ministry official Ri Pyong-dok as telling Japanese reporters in North Korea.
Kyodo also cited Ri as saying Pyongyang's actions are not bound by the joint declaration made at international nuclear disarmament talks last year or an earlier missile moratorium agreed to by Tokyo and Pyongyang in 2002 when their leaders met. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reaffirmed the moratorium in 2004.
Ri told the 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, Kyodo said.
Ri's comments came during an interview by Kyodo and three other media companies on a separate issue, the agency said.
An agreement reached at nuclear disarmament talks in September doesn't specifically address missile tests by the North, although negotiators at the Beijing talks, which included the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, pledged to work toward peace and stability in the region.
North Korea and Japan agreed in 2002 to place a moratorium on missile tests.
Japan has been at the forefront of international concern that North Korea may be planning to test a long-range missile. North Korea is reportedly preparing for a test launch of a missile that could reach the United States, and though the international community has urged it to abandon the plans, Pyongyang has shown no sign of backing down.
The North has abided by a self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests since 1999.
Amid rising tensions in the region over a potential launch, the United States staged massive war games in the western Pacific Ocean with 22,000 troops and three aircraft carriers. The U.S. ambassador to South Korea conveyed Washington's concerns over a launch to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Il next week.
There were conflicting reports about whether a missile launch was imminent.
A Japanese TV report Tuesday said satellite images show the North was still fueling its missile, because fueling vehicles have been spotted around the suspected launch site in the country's northeast. But workers spotted near the head of the missile Monday weren't visible Tuesday, Japan's public broadcaster NHK said, citing U.S. military sources in Japan.
A U.S. official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that U.S. intelligence indicated that North Korea had finished fueling its long-range missile. However, Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Jinen Nagase said Tuesday that Japan could not confirm that fueling was complete.
South Korea's spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, believes North Korea hasn't yet completed fueling because the 40 tanks seen around a launch site weren't enough to fuel a projectile estimated at 65 tons, Yonhap news agency reported, quoting lawmakers who attended an intelligence briefing.
There have also been varying expert opinions on whether the completion of fueling would mean a launch was imminent or whether Pyongyang could wait up to a month. Siphoning the fuel back out of a missile is believed to be difficult.
There were no reports of a launch by Tuesday evening, and the North is considered unlikely to launch at nighttime.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said it appeared some rockets had been assembled but that the North's intentions were unclear.
If the North is "really able to carry nuclear warheads by long-range missile, that would create serious security problems for the international community," Ban told reporters in Geneva, where he is attending international meetings.
"We need to continue to put international pressure on North Korea to withdraw, to stop, to not test, to not engage in this provocative move," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told CBS News' The Early Show.
"…What North Korea is doing is trying to provoke not just the United States, but the international community. All responses need to be on the table. This missile could actually reach the United States," Frist added. "So surely if we're going to be defending our homeland here to the fullest extent possible, we need to be completely prepared to do whatever it takes."
The U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, said after meeting former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that Washington wants normal relations with the North and urged it to return to the nuclear talks. To launch a test missile at this time would "only further compound North Korea's isolation," he told reporters.
Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, who has met repeatedly with the North Koreans, told CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod that he expects the missile launch.
"It's too late now for them not to," he said. "It's on the launch pad. Not having launched at this time would be an act of weakness."
Kim is set to reprise his historic June 2000 summit in Pyongyang that marked the first-and-only meeting of leaders from the North and South, although the missile issue is complicating trip arrangements.
North Korea kept up its tough talk in the country's official media Tuesday, lashing out at the United States for its missile defense plans, which it said would "touch off a space war in the long run," the North's Minju Joson newspaper wrote in a commentary, according to the country's Korean Central News Agency.
The North also criticized Japan. The Pentagon earlier this month said Tokyo was set to buy shipborne missiles and associated equipment from the U.S. to upgrade its missile defense system.
The North claimed Tokyo's new missiles showed an intent to become "a military giant," the North's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said in commentary carried by KCNA.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday in Washington that test-launching the missile, believed to be a Taepodong-2 with a firing range experts estimate could be up to 9,300 miles, would be a "very serious matter and, indeed, a provocative act."
North Korea claims it has nuclear weapons, but isn't believed to have a design that would be small and light enough to top a missile. The North has boycotted international nuclear talks since last November.
China, North Korea's staunchest ally, urged calm.
"We hope that under the current circumstances, relevant parties can do more in the interest of regional stability and peace," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.