South Korean government officials believe the chief of the North Korean Army's General Staff, Ri Yong-ho was abruptly sacked as part of a purge aimed at consolidating leader Kim Jong-un's grip on power.
A government official here said it seems Jang Song-taek, the uncle and patron of Kim, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the People's Army General Political Bureau, got the nod from Kim to investigate Ri and sacked him after uncovering corruption.
"Ri's dismissal did not happen suddenly but was meticulously planned to gain control of military officers whose power had grown out of hand," says one source familiar with North Korean affairs. "The new military heavyweights will see their influence weaken significantly."
The North Korean military has sometimes been described as a state within a state, whose power grew out of all proportion due to former leader Kim Jong-il's "songun" or military-first doctrine.
The new military heavyweights rose to key positions after February of 2009, when Kim Jong-il appointed Jong-un to succeed him. They include Vice Marshal Ri and Gen. Kim Yong-chol, the head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which oversees all espionage operations against South Korea and was responsible for the torpedo attack on the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan.
What the military will do next is expected to have a considerable impact not only on the North's power structure but also on inter-Korean relations.
It seems the new military heavyweights are now perceived as potential threats to Kim Jong-un's hold on power. A government official here said Kim Jong-un will probably take further steps to gain control of the military, the first indication being the appointment of Vice Marshal Choe, originally a Workers Party official, as director of the army's General Political Bureau, because that effectively hands over control of the vital foreign currency business from the military to the Workers Party.
"We expect significant unrest among North Korean top brass alarmed by Ri's ouster," the official said.
The North Korean military attempted a coup in April 1995, a year after the death of nation founder Kim Il-sung. "At that time, officers with the Sixth Corps in Chongjin plotted to occupy a university in town and announce their coup before heading to Pyongyang, but their plot was foiled and they were arrested," said Song Bong-sun at Korea University.
"The uprising occurred in the early stages of Kim Jong-il's attempt to gain control of the military, and there is no guarantee that Kim Jong-un won't face the same situation," an informed source said.
But most North Korea watchers believe the chances of a military uprising are slim at this point because Choe keeps an eye on practically every military truck that moves on the roads of North Korea.
Other experts warn there is an increased chance of a North Korean provocation. "It is typical of North Korea to aim its guns at South Korea whenever it faces internal turmoil," a government official here said. "We have heightened our alert against a possible provocation."
The Defense Ministry said it has bolstered surveillance following Ri's dismissal. The U.S. military has also boosted reconnaissance flights by U2 spy planes.