The Defense Department says in the absence of any statement by the North Korean government it will not be possible to know whether a widely expected missile launch is a test or an attack.
Spokesman Bryan Whitman would not confirm reports that North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range missile, saying he could not discuss intelligence matters. But he says if there is a launch without any advance notice from the government in Pyongyang, there will be no basis on which to assume it is only a test.
"'Test' would, to me, indicate that you are doing something like an exercise," he said. "You are testing a missile. 'Test' has intent behind it, as opposed to launching a missile. When you are launching a missile, to me, you [others] do not know what the intent of the launch is, you [others] do not know if the launch is intended to be a test or something else."
The Pentagon spokesman hinted to reporters that if North Korea launches a missile the United States might use its new missile defense system.
"The United States does have a limited missile defense system. I will not get into or discuss any specific alert status or capabilities," added Whitman.
The U.S. Missile Defense system relies on radars and other systems on the ground and on satellites to detect missile launches and deploy interceptors to shoot them down. The system has had some successful tests, and some failures, and is not yet fully operational.
The Pentagon spokesman and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice again referred to any North Korean launch as 'a provocative act.' And Secretary Rice says she has been coordinating possible responses with allies.
"It would once again show North Korea determined to deepen its isolation, determined not to take a path that is a path of compromise and a path of peace," said Rice.
Secretary Rice says a launch would violate North Korea's own moratorium, and she says maintaining the moratorium is part of the agreement North Korea signed last September to pursue a diplomatic solution to the dispute over its nuclear program.