Hwang Pyong-so, one of Kim Jong-un's top aides in North Korea, has reportedly disappeared from public life, and speculation is rife that he may have been executed.
It has been over two months that Pyong-so, who was a powerful military general in Pyongyang, was last seen in public. In fact, he is one of only six people to have been photographed directly next to Kim Jong-un.
His vanishing act has sparked rumours of his involvement in a bribery scandal, and that he may have been executed.
A report on The Telegraph said he is "believed to have been expelled" from the Workers' Party following allegations of corruption against him. The report also said his deputy, Kim Won-hong, has been banished to prison camp.
"If Pyong-so was indeed kicked out of the Workers' Party, it would practically mean the end of his political career, and possibly his life, though it is unknown whether or not he is still alive," the report quoted South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo as saying.
According to intelligence reports, The Telegraph report added, Pyong-so and Won-hong had been targeted by a rare inspection of the army's politburo following suspicions of an "impure attitude" towards the regime. The JoongAng Ilbo quoted a "source" that the duo had allegedly been receiving kickbacks in exchange for promotions.
North Korea's bloody history
Kim has not shied away from removing or punishing even favoured leaders who could become powerful enough to threaten his grip on power, Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership at 38 North, a project of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies in Washington, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
"Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So could not have continued in the capacity that he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him," he said.
The punishment represents the first time Hwang has faced any major blow to his standing, said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korea leadership expert at Ewha Woman’s University’s Institute of Unification Studies.
Hwang had a reputation of playing a respectful and careful role around the notoriously unpredictable Kim. Photos released by state media often showed him covering his mouth as he politely laughed with the supreme leader.
The punishment may not reflect any specific mistakes on Pyong-so's part but could be part of a wider effort by Kim to ensure that the ruling party retains its control over the military, Lee said.
The moves are part of a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the political unit of the military for the first time in 20 years, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker on South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee.
They could also be an effort to prevent a repeat of a major purge in 2013, Madden added. Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-un's uncle, who was then the second most powerful man in the secretive State, was executed during that purge after a special military tribunal found him guilty of treason.
Preemptively putting Pyong-so in his place now meant he's being prevented from becoming so powerful that he could only be dealt with in a similar way, Madden said. "What (Kim Jong-un) is doing can be described as clipping wings," he added.
With inputs from Reuters
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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2017 13:46:00 IST