The US military would not necessarily shoot down a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, should the country's leader try to test one, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said in a New Year's speech that the country was "in the final stages of test-launching the intercontinental ballistic missile."
Carter, whose two-year run as Pentagon chief will come to an end when President Barack Obama leaves office January 20 and Donald Trump is inaugurated, said in his final news conference that it might make sense to watch such a test without taking action.
"If the missile is threatening it will be intercepted. If it is not threatening, we won't necessarily do so," he said.
"It may be more to our advantage to first of all save our interceptor inventory, and second to gather intelligence from the flight," he added.
In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and numerous missile launches in its quest to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland.
Analysts are divided over how close Pyongyang is to realizing its full nuclear ambitions, especially since it has never successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The Pentagon last week said it was confident in its capabilities to defend against a missile attack by North Korea.
For its part, South Korea plans to deploy a US missile defense system -- despite opposition from China -- to protect against any threats from the North.
President-elect Trump has named retired Marine Corps general James Mattis as defense secretary. Mattis needs a special congressional waiver from a law that bars generals from serving as defense secretary for seven years after leaving active duty.
He retired in 2013.