Kim Jong-un has once again moved to consolidate his hold on power after reportedly punishing two of his top military officials.
The secretive country's second-most powerful military officer, Vice-Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, was among those who attracted Kim's wrath, South Korea's spy agency revealed.
Politicians in Seoul were told Kim punished the officials during a highly unusual inspection of the military's powerful political bureau, the Associated Press reported.
The spy agency said it obtained intelligence that the head of the bureau, Hwang, his top deputy, Kim Wong-hong, and other officers were all punished, politician Kim Byung-kee said.
The closed-door briefing by the National Intelligence Service heard the inspection of the North Korean military's General Political Bureau inspection was the first of its kind in 20 years.
The bureau is responsible for the political life of North Korea's 1.1 million-strong military.
The move took place because of its "impure" attitude, which it did not describe.
It remained unclear whether the two officials were verbally reprimanded, dismissed or banished to a rural area.
The spy agency did not use the words purge or execution, which could indicate Hwang was reprimanded and has kept his plum role.
The move is reportedly being spearheaded by Choe, a top official of the ruling Workers' Party, who has gained influence in recent weeks, according to the New York Times.
Analysts told the Times the North Korean leader is using the tactic to instil fear among the elites and strengthen his control as the country braces for impacts of tough UN sanctions.
The spy agency, which has a spotty record in reporting developments in North Korea, said it couldn't publicly confirm Kim's account of the briefing.
It said the North's investigation of the military political bureau is continuing, and is spearheaded by Choe, who was the military's top political officer before Hwang.
The report came as North Korea struggles to head off international sanctions that were toughened after its sixth and biggest nuclear test in September.
It also follows a spate of missile tests this year, including two that passed over Japan.
POWERFUL NUMBER TWO
Hwang's position as the military's top political officer made him North Korea's second most powerful official after Kim, South Korean analysts revealed.
If he were to be removed, it could lead to a major shift in North Korea's secretive hierarchy of power.
Hwang was promoted to the top role in the Korean People's Army in 2014, moving up two ranks - from colonel general - in a short time, NK News reported.
Regarded as a "close confidant" of Kim, he was considered to be a vital part of his inner circle and has regularly appeared by his side.
According to NK Leadership Watch, an affiliate of 38 North, Hwang is responsible for the political management of his country's conventional military forces as well as its political education and cultural activities.
He has been close to Kim for more than a decade but grew closer to him following the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-il in 2011.
Between then and 2014, he served as a gatekeeper and proxy between the supreme leader and several key organisations in North Korea's national security community.
KIM'S GRIP TIGHTENS
Since taking office in late 2011, Kim has orchestrated a series of high-profile purges, dismissals and executions in what foreign analysts say is an attempt to bolster his grip on power and remove anyone seen as a challenge to his leadership.
Hwang was last mentioned in a North Korean state media dispatch on October 13 that reported his attendance at an event marking the anniversary of a revolutionary school.
Kim Won-hong once headed North Korea's state security ministry, and the South Korean government said in February he had been fired from that post, presumably because of corruption, abuse of power and torture committed by his ministry.
The punishment of the two top officials isn't the first time the North Korean leader has looked to shore up his grip on power.
In 2016, the secretive nation reportedly executed a vice-premier and banished two other top officials to rural areas for re-education.
Kim Yong-jin, a vice-premier on education affairs in North Korea's cabinet, was reportedly executed for slouching during a meeting.
In 2013 Jang Song-Thaek, Kim's own uncle, was also executed over an apparent plot to unseat him.
This year, the North Korean's estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in broad daylight at Kuala Lumpur airport in an attack South Korean blamed on agents from the North.
- with Associated Press