The apparent ouster of Jang Song-thaek, a key guardian and uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has raised the prospect of shifts in the reclusive state's power structure and external policies.
Some analysts said that the dismissal of Jang, seen as a dovish reformist, could weaken moderate voices among the power elites and push the regime toward a tougher policy.
"One possibility is that Jang was ousted in a power struggle between his faction, which favors change and cooperation with the outside world, and conservatives favouring nuclear armament and tougher policies," speculated Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies, affiliated with Seoul National University.
"This raises concerns that the North Korean regime could face some destabilizing factors that would make it difficult to reach some moderate decisions on crucial national and international issues."
Seoul's National Intelligence Service on Tuesday said that Jang was highly likely to have been dismissed from the reclusive state's power circles since two of his closest confidants were executed in late November for unspecified corruption charges.
Seoul's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said Wednesday that Jang appeared to remain unharmed, but the possibility of his dismissal was high.
The NIS cited the significant decrease in the number of Jang's public appearances this year as signs of his declining status. Last year, Jang was seen accompanying the North Korean leader on 106 occasions, while the figure decreased to 52 this year.