The National Intelligence Service told the National Assembly on Tuesday that North Korean eminence grise Jang Song-taek appears to have been stripped of all his posts.
The NIS said two of Jang's close confidants in the Workers Party, Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil, were publicly executed in mid November and Jang has disappeared from view since then.
This would be a shocking development. Jang was not only North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's patron but also considered the real power behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He is the husband of Kim's powerful aunt Kim Kyong-hui.
Former leader Kim Jong-il apparently cared dearly for his sister, and Jang assumed control of North Korea in August 2008 when Kim senior suffered a massive stroke. The couple then orchestrated the transfer of power to Kim Jong-un when his father died suddenly in late 2011.
Northing is known about Kim Kyong-hui's current whereabouts.
Jang was ousted twice in the past. He fell out of favor with Kim Jong-il for abusing his power and favoring his cronies. Kim senior was on his guard against the ambitious Jang, but had no choice but to turn to him for support because of Jang’s ties by marriage to the bloodline of nation founder Kim Il-sung.
However, if 30-year-old Kim Jong-un did indeed sack his uncle, who is 37 years older than him, Jang would probably be facing quite a different fate this time round.
Jang's ouster will have a decisive impact on North Korea's future. He was considered well connected in Beijing and has even visited Seoul. He was therefore seen as relatively au fait with developments outside the reclusive North and is said to have favored China's economic reforms. Partial economic reforms Kim pursued this year were rumored to have been spurred by Jang.
Considering North Korea's turbulent political landscape, it cannot be ruled out that Jang will return to power. Without his aunt and uncle, Kim Jong-un would now face the question whether he can strengthen his grip on power by himself or become shaken by internal opposition.
Since 2008, Jang has headed the administrative division of the Workers Party, which oversees security and legal affairs, placing his cronies including Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong in influential positions in the regime and party. That means the latest developments impact the fate of not only Jang but the entire old guard of which he was a part.
Even in an autocratic country like North Korea, there is still the chance of political upheaval, and the hawkish military may now be less restrained in conducting a fourth nuclear test or fire another long-range missile. Both would be bad news for South Korea.
The top priority must be to find out who and what was behind Jang's ouster. South Korea must do what it can to predict the next move of the unpredictable North Korean regime, and in these efforts the work of the NIS is vital.