SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has dismissed its minister of state security, who was a key aide to Kim Jong Un and ran the country's secret police, South Korea said on Friday.
A high-profile defector said it appeared to be another sign of a "crack in the elite" in Pyongyang if true.
Kim Won Hong was removed from office as head of the feared "bowibu," or secret police, in mid-January apparently on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses, according to South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.
Jeong did not say how the South knew of Kim's ouster.
"There is always a possibility that purges continue as part of constantly strengthening power," he told a briefing, adding punishment for Kim could be more severe depending on the outcome of the investigation, but he had been dismissed and demoted from the rank of general to major general.
Kim Jong Un became leader in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and his consolidation of power has included purges and executions of top officials, South Korean officials have said.
Last year, North Korea's vice premier for education was executed for not keeping his posture upright at a public event, South Korea said.
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.
"I cannot confirm if the reports are true or not, but this kind of power struggle is quite normal in North Korean history. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un's style of control is always one of collective surveillance that checks the power of each organization.
"Kim Jong Un has killed too many high officials and there are a lot of complaints and dissent amongst the high elite because of it. If the demotion of Kim Won Hong is really true, then that's another sign of a crack in the North Korean elite group."
It is difficult to independently verify news about top officials in the North, which has angered the West with a series of missile and nuclear weapons tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions and sanctions.
North Korea rarely announces purges or executions, although state media confirmed the 2012 execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, widely considered the country's second most powerful leader, for factionalism and crimes damaging to the economy.
Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.