South Korea's spy agency believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have fired his uncle from a top military post and publicly executed some of his associates.
Lawmakers briefed by Seoul's National Intelligence Agency said Tuesday that Jang Song Thaek was apparently removed as vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.
The lawmakers say the agency believes two of Jang's closest aides - Lee Yong-ha and Jang Soo-keel - were executed in mid-November and that he has not been seen since.
Aidan Foster-Carter, an honorary senior fellow at the University of Leeds in England and a long-time Korea watcher, says the demotion of Jang, while not confirmed, is very plausible.
"We used to get their activities reported almost daily, but there has been nothing on Jang for almost a month and only one in October. And also his wife, nothing since September."
Jang is married to the sister of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. He has long been considered influential in the North's secretive governing hierarchy.
Park Hyung-joong, a researcher at South Korea's Korea Institute for National Unification, tells VOA's Korean service that if Jang was removed, it was probably done by the military, which was very unhappy with his economic initiatives.
"I think Jang took charge of the North Korean economic policy since 2012. One of the policy changes he pushed for was taking away the military's right to international trade. That was aggressively pursued late last year and lead to purging of many high-level military officials. That seems to have backfired on him."
North Korea has not commented on the report. If confirmed, it would be one of the top shuffles of North Korean leadership since Kim Jong Un took over.
(This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.)