North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's uncle, seen as the hardline regime's political regent, has apparently been purged and two associates executed, South Korea's spy agency said yesterday, nearly two years after the young supremo came to power.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told a parliamentary committee that it believed Jang Song-thaek had been removed from all posts, including vice-chairman of the top military body, the National Defence Commission.
If confirmed, Jang's ousting would mark the most significant purge at the top of the North Korean leadership since Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.
According to the NIS briefing, Jang was "recently ousted from his position and two of his close confidants - Ri Yong-ha and Jang Soo-kil - were publicly executed in mid-November", lawmaker Jung Cheong-rae said.
North Korean military personnel had been notified of the executions, Jung said, adding that Jang, 67, had since "disappeared".
The husband of Kim Jong-il's powerful sister, Kim Kyong-hui, Jang was seen as instrumental in cementing Kim Jong-un's hold on power in the tricky transition period after his father's death.
He was often referred to as the unofficial No 2 in the hierarchy and the real power behind the throne of Kim, who is about 30.
"I can only guess that the roles played by Jang have caused some tension in the process of consolidating Kim Jong-un's power," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Jang once visited South Korea and witnessed many aspects of capitalist society, including the changes that have been happening in China.
"So he was the figure who was most likely to aggressively push for some reforms and opening of the North's system," Kim said.
Several analysts suggested Jang may have lost out in a power struggle with Choe Ryong-hae, a close Kim Jong-un confidant who holds the military rank of vice-marshal and is director of the Korean People's Army's General Political Department.
In May, Kim sent Choe as his personal envoy to Beijing to hand-deliver a letter to President Xi Jinping .
Jang Song-thaek has fallen out of favour before. In 2004 he was understood to have undergone "re-education" as a steel mill labourer because of suspected corruption, but he made a comeback the following year.
He expanded his influence rapidly after Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008 and he was appointed vice-chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission in 2010.
His wife, Kim Kyong-hui, has also long been at the centre of power. She was promoted to four-star general at the same time as Kim Jong-un in 2010, a sign of her key role in the family's efforts to maintain its six-decade grip on power.
In the past year, she has been far less visible, with reports she was seriously ill and had sought hospital treatment in Singapore on several occasions.
"Jang's ouster and the public execution of his associates means they had probably formed a significant political clique of their own," said Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul.
"The purge suggests Kim Jong-un has a very strong grip on power and it will lead to more competition within the leadership to showcase loyalty towards the leader," Cheong said.
Last month the North Korean defector-run news website, Daily NK, known for its sources inside North Korea, published a long article about Jang's diminishing political clout. The Seoul-based website quoted multiple sources suggesting Jang's influence had waned.