The Obama administration is repeating that North Korea will face consequences if it follows through with its threatened missile launch. But U.S. officials say a pathway remains open for North Korea to return to international talks over its nuclear program.
The U.S. tone was set by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at a news conference in the Netherlands reiterated a statement she made last week in Mexico that a North Korean missile test would bring consequences.
North Korea warned Japan, which has activated missile defense systems in anticipation of a missile test, that interference with what Pyongyang says will be a satellite launch would be an act of war.
Clinton, speaking on the sidelines of the international conference on Afghanistan at the Hague, said Japan has every right to protect and defend its territory. But U.S. officials otherwise were toning down their rhetoric on the issue.
A senior official who spoke to reporters in Washington said Japan would use missile-defense systems only to intercept falling parts of a North Korea missile if it broke up in Japanese airspace.
State Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid, meanwhile, said the United States sees no use in engaging in a rhetorical contest with North Korea over the missile launch, which U.S. officials consider as a disguised test of a long-range missile in violation of a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution.
"I do not think it is particularly profitable to respond to each belligerent statement that we see in the North Korean press. The belligerent position is in no way justified, given the status of where we are at in our six-party negotiations. We have left it that the North Koreans have committed not only under U.N.S.C. resolution 1718 not to engage in ballistic missile activity, but they have also committed to us to provide a verification protocol for their entire nuclear program," he said.
Duguid said the path back to the Chinese-sponsored six-party negotiations, which have been stalled since last year, has never been closed to North Korean and that this path - rather than belligerence - is the way Pyongyang can achieve objectives it says it wants, including international acceptance and security guarantees.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned in a report that "over-reaction" to a North Korean missile launch could lead to the demise of the six-party talks and possibly trigger regional war.
The senior State Department official said he did not think the United States has been over-reacting to the North Korean missile activity, and has chosen not to match Pyongyang "statement to statement" on the issue.
The official said the administration is downplaying its public reaction to Pyongyang's detention two weeks ago of two American women journalists along the North Korea-China border - so as not to allow the case to become what he termed a "cause celebre."
The United States is pressing for the return of the two women through China and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which looks after U.S. interests in North Korea and has been given consular access to the them.
The official said the United States is aware of press reports but has not been officially informed that the two may face trial for unspecified "hostile acts" against North Korea.
He said the United States is working quietly and diplomatically for their release and does not believe that raising the profile of the case, especially amid the tensions of the missile issue, would be in the best interests of the two U.S. citizens.