SEOUL • North Korea has executed its army chief of staff, General Ri Yong Gil, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported yesterday.
If true, it would be the latest in a series of executions, purges and disappearances under its young leader Kim Jong Un.
The news comes amid heightened tension surrounding North Korea after its launch of a long-range rocket on Sunday, which came about a month after it drew international condemnation for conducting its fourth nuclear test.
Gen Ri, who was chief of the Korean People's Army General Staff, was executed this month for corruption and factional conspiracy, Yonhap and other South Korean media reported. Yonhap did not identify its sources.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service declined to comment and it was not possible to independently verify the report.
The North rarely issues public announcements related to purges or executions of high-level officials.
A rare official confirmation of a high-profile execution came after Mr Jang Song Thaek, Mr Kim's uncle and the man who was once considered the second most powerful figure in the country, was executed for corruption in 2013.
Last May, the North executed its defence chief at a firing range using an anti-aircraft gun, the South's spy agency said in a report to Members of Parliament.
The North's military leadership has been in a state of perpetual reshuffle since Mr Kim took power after the death of his father in 2011. He has changed his armed forces chief several times.
Meanwhile, US national intelligence director James Clapper said North Korea has expanded its production of weapons-grade nuclear fuel and that the Obama administration now regarded the reclusive government in Pyongyang, rather than Iran, as the world's most worrisome nuclear threat.
"Pyongyang continues to produce fissile material and develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile," Mr Clapper said. "It is also committed to developing a long- range nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, although the system has not been flight tested."
Mr Clapper's warning, delivered in his annual worldwide threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, came a day after President Barack Obama called the leaders of Japan and South Korea to reassure them after the rocket launch by North Korea deepened fears that Pyongyang could strike the two countries with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
US intelligence agencies say North Korea has expanded its uranium-enrichment facility at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon and restarted a plutonium production reactor.
North Korea "could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months", Mr Clapper said.
With North Korea testing a nuclear device and launching a satellite in quick succession, the White House has grown frustrated by its inability to curb the government in Pyongyang. Mr Obama spoke with China's President Xi Jinping a few days before the latest launch to urge him to use his country's influence over the North to prevent it.
REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES