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, suggesting a huge upheaval in one of the world's most secretive states.
Lawmakers briefed by Seoul's National Intelligence Agency said on Tuesday that Jang Song Thaek was apparently removed as vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission.
The lawmakers say the NIS 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.
Jang is married to the sister of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. He has long been considered an influential part of the North's governing hierarchy.
His behind-the-scenes powers were said to expand in 2011, following Kim Jong Il's unexpected death. Some analysts viewed him as a regent for his nephew, Kim Jong Un, whom many saw as young and inexperienced.
North Korea has not commented on the report by the NIS. If confirmed, it would be one of the top shuffles of North Korean leadership since Kim Jong Un took over.
There was no immediate mention of Jang's fate on North Korea's KCNA news agency, the primary source of information on the country for outsiders. KCNA regularly threatens the democratic South and the United States with destruction.
Jang, who is widely seen as an advocate of economic reform, was previously purged in a power struggle in 2004 under Kim Jong Il's rule but was reinstated two years later.
Analysts who watch the North's power structure say Jang's removal would not have been possible without leader Kim Jong Un's approval.
Apart from domestic political problems, North Korea is involved in a protracted standoff with the West over its nuclear weapons program.
This year, Kim Jong Un has threatened the United States with nuclear attack, declared a “state of war” with South Korea and announced he was restarting a plutonium reactor at the Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant - all on top of conducting a third nuclear test in February and a long-range rocket test last December.
Some information in this report was contributed by Reuters.