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.
"I believe that previously no one has ever become a vice marshal only days after being elevated to a four-star rank. We need to look into the timeframe for the promotion because it has not yet been a full month since he was confirmed to be a four-star (general)."
Some experts have raised the possibility that Hwang might replace an ailing Choe or lead the formidable General Political Bureau as a vice director.
While reporting on Kim's supervision of a military drill on Sunday, the KCNA read out Hwang's name ahead of Ri Yong-gil, chief of the army's general staff and Jang Jong-nam, minister of the People's Armed Forces.
"I think Hwang has already been appointed the General Political Bureau director or its deputy, given the longstanding custom that the position is called before chief of the general staff and People's Armed Forces minister," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, said in an analysis.
"Choe's public activity has sharply decreased this year because Kim asked him to take care of himself as his diabetes developed. So even if he has been replaced, the reason will likely be his health rather than a purge."
Presumably one of Kim's closest confidants, Hwang clout grew after he turned up at a military event on April 15 with the insignia of a four-star general. The Rodong Sinmun, a Workers' Party mouthpiece, published an image on April 20 in which he appeared two seats away from Kim at a rally of military pilots.
The 65-year-old official became a three-star general in April 2011, and the first vice director of the party's organisation guidance department last month.
He is believed to have won the trust of Kim's late mother Ko Yong-hui in the lead-up to the power succession, following the death of longtime dictator Kim Jong-il, and had taken university classes together with Kim Kyong-hui, the young ruler's aunt.