North Korean businessmen in China are being summoned back by Pyongyang in what appears to be part of a continuing crackdown on loyalists of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of current leader Kim Jong-un executed last week.
Despite the shocking turn of events in the country, American former basketball star Dennis Rodman confirmed he still planned to go there this week.
The calling back of the businessmen was aimed at cracking the whip on those "classified as having connections" with Jang, who served as a key go-between with China, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said yesterday, citing unnamed sources.
The reclusive state meanwhile launched a fresh media blitz in a bid to rationalise Jang's elimination and rally support behind its young leader. Rodong Sinmun, the official daily, splashed on its front page a colour photo of Kim touring a military design institute. The undated photo is the first of Kim to appear since Jang's execution.
He was accompanied by Choe Ryong-hae, a close confidant who holds the military rank of vice-marshal, and trailed by other military officers.
The United States and South Korea raised concern about the situation, with Washington warning North Korea against any "provocative acts".
"Certainly, it's something we're concerned about, and we would urge the North Koreans not to take provocative acts, not to do so going forward, because it's not in the interest of regional stability," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
Washington was in regular talks with Beijing, Pyongyang's sole major ally, and "we're on the same page in terms of urging the North Koreans to come back in line with their international obligations", Harf said.
In Seoul, South Korean defence minister Kim Kwan-jin pledged to increase military vigilance against any potential provocations.
Former NBA star Rodman, who considers Kim a close friend, had agreed weeks ago to travel to North Korea tomorrow to train the national team. Rodman has also organised an exhibition game next month in Pyongyang to celebrate Kim's birthday.
"Yes, I'm going to North Korea to train the basketball team," he said. "I'm going to bring American players over there. Yes I am. I'm going to be the most famous person in the world when you see American people holding hands and hoping the doors can be opened. If they can. If they can. If they can. I'm going. I'm going back for his birthday. Special."
Rodman, known as much for his piercings, tattoos and bad behaviour as for sport , is the highest-profile American to have met Kim since he inherited power from his father, Kim Jong-il.
Beijing-based Koryo Tours said it had procured 12 exclusive tickets to see Rodman and other stars play on January 8, the birthday of Kim. Less than two hours after the tour was confirmed, applications were received for two of the 12 spots, said Simon Cockerell the tour's organiser. The trip will cost €6,500 (HK$69,000).
Photography will not be allowed as high-ranking officials are expected to attend.