According to unconfirmed South Korean reports, North Korea’s military chief of staff, General Ri Yong-gil, has been executed.
However, senior officials in North Korea have previously been absent from view for long periods only to reappear.
Ri Yong-gil would be the latest of several high-ranking North Korea officials to be purged under leader Kim Jong-un.
South Korean media reported that Gen. Ri Yong-gil had been executed earlier this month for corruption and “factional conspiracy”.
Last week, a meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party attended by Kim Jong-un discussed how to deal with corruption.
While no individuals were mentioned, state news agency KCNA reported at the time that those at the meeting criticized “the practices of seeking privileges, misuse of authority… and bureaucratism manifested in the party”.
If this is the case, Ri Yong-gil will be the fourth chief of staff since Kim Jong-un took over in 2011, as opposed to three during his father Kim Jong-il’s 17 years in power.
The reports of Ri Yong-gil’s execution come days after North Korea launched a long-range rocket, which critics say is a test of banned missile technology.
On January 6, North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test.
Some observers say the regime’s recent behavior may be linked to Kim Jong-un wanting to shore up his position ahead of a rare congress of the Workers’ Party due in May.
In May 2015, South Korea’s spy agency told parliament that North Korea’s Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol had been executed for showing disloyalty to Kim Jong-un.
The agency said Hyon Yong-chol was killed by anti-aircraft fire in front of an audience of hundreds – it later said it was yet to verify the information. That news came weeks after the reported execution of 15 senior officials.
Also on February 10, South Korea announced it was suspending operations at the jointly-run Kaesong industrial park in North Korea following the North’s recent rocket launch and nuclear test.
Seoul said all operations at the Kaesong complex would halt, to stop North Korea using its investment “to fund its nuclear and missile development”.
The suspension will mean North Korea will lose the income it currently gains from the site, which comes to $100 million a year.