SEOUL - The man in the olive drabs and oversized Soviet-style military cap who strode through South Korea's main airport last week has climbed from an obscure desk job in North Korea to the most powerful position outside the ruling Kim family.
Hwang Pyong So, now a top military aide to the North's leader Kim Jong Un, has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea's leadership in the space of a few years. With intense speculation on the whereabouts of Kim after his disappearance from official media for over a month, Hwang is even more in focus.
Last week, Hwang was at the head of a delegation that visited South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in the city of Incheon with little advance notice. He is the senior-most official from the North to have ever come to the South, and opinion is divided on whether this could be a sign of turmoil in Pyongyang.
Hwang, who is 64 or 65, was in the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), a powerful and secretive body that finalises appointments within North Korea's leadership, and rose to be its second-in-command, according to North Korea experts and South Korea's Unification Ministry.
At the time, the OGD was headed by Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader.
Hwang was associated with Kim Jong Un in the late 2000s when the young man was first named in state media reports announcing his party and military credentials.
When Kim Jong Un took power after his father's death in 2011, Hwang was among his coterie of advisers. As others fell by the wayside, Hwang became chief of the General Political Bureau of the army, a powerful position that mobilises the military for the leader, earlier this year.
Last month, he also became vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, considered one of the most important posts in North Korea. Kim Jong Un is chairman.
Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector who previously worked at a propaganda unit in the North's ruling party, said it was unusual for an OGD veteran to rise to such a prominent position. "These are the people who come to the forefront only when there is a purge or an execution," said Jang.
Pyongyang's military leadership has been in a state of perpetual reshuffle since Kim Jong Un took power.
Kim's uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was once seen as the No.2 in Pyongyang, was purged and executed late last year.
Jang's replacement, Choe Ryong Hae, has been demoted several times since then. Now head of the state sports commission, a role Jang also held before being executed, Choe accompanied Hwang on the visit to South Korea.
Choe fell from grace when Kim Jong Un learned the 65-year-old had stashed millions of dollars in a secret Chinese bank account, the respected Seoul-based Daily NK website reported in July.\