Over the last few weeks, a notable change was spotted within the core of the reclusive North Korean ruling elite: Hwang Pyong-so, formerly the first vice director of the ruling party's organisation guidance department, was elevated to the rank of four-star general and then to the rarefied, coveted rank of vice marshal.
The decision was made Saturday by the powerful National Defence Commission and the Workers' Party's Central Military Commission, the official Korean Central News Agency announced Monday.
The promotion marks the latest in a string of purges and personnel shakeups since the surprise execution last December of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of leader Kim Jong-un.
The advancement puts Hwang on the same level as Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, who appears to have taken over as the communist state's second-most influential figure. Four other officials hold the same title.
The promotion coincides with the dwindling public appearances by Choe, which has rekindled speculation about his political status and health, as well as the fierce power struggle within the top echelons of the secretive society.
Choe has not appeared in official events since April 11, including a major celebration of the 82nd anniversary of the founding of the military. He may have reemerged in a photo of a Central Military Commission session released Sunday by the KCNA but Seoul's Unification Ministry said it could not confirm this.
"Choe has not appeared at public events just for about two weeks. At this point we cannot provide an explanation but can tell you that we're closely monitoring the related situation," ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do said at a news briefing on Monday.
"There are various possibilities regarding Hwang's new position ― it could be as vice chairman of the National Defence Commission or something else that fits the vice marshal rank.