SEOUL • North Korea has dismissed its minister of state security, a key aide to leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea said yesterday, in what a high-profile defector said would be another sign of a "crack in the elite" in Pyongyang if true.
Mr Kim Won Hong was removed from office as head of the feared bowibu, or secret police, in the middle of last month, apparently on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses, said Mr Jeong Joon Hee, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman, confirming media reports.
Mr Jeong did not say how the South knew of Mr Kim Won Hong's ouster.
But he said there could have been further dismissals in the North, where the ruling Workers' Party's powerful Organisation and Guidance Department was investigating the ministry of state security.
"There is always a possibility that purges continue as part of constantly strengthening power," he told a briefing.
Mr Jeong added that punishment for the secret police chief could be more severe, depending on the outcome of the investigation.
Mr Kim Won Hong was demoted from the rank of full general to major-general.
He survived repeated purges after Mr Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. Four of the North's five highest-ranking military officers have been purged.
Since taking power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered a series of high-profile purges to cement his rule. They include:
•Jang Song Thaek, who was executed for alleged treason in December 2013. He was married to Kim Jong Il's sister Kim Kyong Hui and was once considered the second-most powerful man in North Korea.
•Former defence chief Hyon Yong Chol was executed in April 2015 after dozing off during a military rally attended by Mr Kim Jong Un. He was reportedly killed with an anti-aircraft gun.
•Vice-Premier Kim Yong Jin was denounced for his "bad sitting posture when he was sitting below the rostrum" during a session of North Korea's Parliament. He was killed by a firing squad in July last year.
The 72-year-old, in the post since 2012, played a key role in arresting and executing Mr Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, once known as the No. 2 power holder, in 2013 on charges of treason.
Mr Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's former deputy ambassador to London who has defected to the South, told Reuters he was not surprised by the news.
"If the demotion of Kim Won Hong is really true, then that's another sign of a crack in the North Korean elite group," he said.
"Kim Jong Il's and Kim Jong Un's style of control is always one of collective surveillance that checks the power of each organisation.
"Kim Jong Un has killed too many high-level officials and there are a lot of complaints and dissent among the high elite because of it," Mr Thae told Reuters.
It is difficult to independently verify news about top officials in the North. Some reports of executions and purges have proven inaccurate.
North Korea rarely announces purges or executions, although state media confirmed the execution of Jang for factionalism and crimes damaging to the economy.
Experts say the purges and other punishments are tools used by Mr Kim Jong Un to keep his officials in check and maintain his one-man rule.
"Kim (Won Hong)'s case does not appear to be a purge, so I think that he could be reinstated after undergoing some re-education," Mr Cheong Seong Chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.
NK News, a specialist North Korea reporting service, said state media reported only three official appearances by Mr Kim Won Hong last year, the last of them in June.
This figure was down from 32 in 2013, indicating that he had "appeared to fall out of favour".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE