Kim Jong-un sacks his own spy chief, says Seoul
Kim Won-hong, 72, was dismissed from the head of the Ministry of State Security in mid-January after a probe by the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) found the agency had abused its authority, according to Seoul's unification ministry. His military rank was also demoted to major general from full general, it said.
The ministry said he was sacked to take responsibility for the suspicion that the intelligence agency committed wrongdoings including human rights violations, abuse of power and corruption.
"North Korea's leader dismissed Kim, his key aide who implemented his reign of terror," Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, said at a regular press briefing.
"Instability in the North Korean regime is likely to increase as the elite members may become agitated and the regime's control over ordinary North Koreans could weaken," he added.
North Korea's security ministry has powerful authority as it screens so-called reactionary elements in society, supervises political prisoners' camps and arrests those who attempt to flee the country.
Known as a close aide to the North's leader, Kim Won-hong became the head of the spy agency in April 2012 after Kim Jong-un took office in late 2011.
He is also known to have spearheaded the move to execute Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, the once-powerful uncle of the North's young leader.
The latest surveillance was conducted by the WPK's organization and guidance department, which was also involved in Jang's execution.
A government official, asking not to be named, said that North Korea also executed an unspecified number of the agency's officials in the wake of the probe.
"There is growing public discontent and fear over the leader's repressive rule. The dismissal appears to be aimed at easing complaints from North Koreans and showing that the leader cares for his people," he said.
The official said that the party will likely decide the level of punishment for Kim after the probe which is still under way.
The North's leader has been strengthening his so-called reign of terror by killing more than 100 military, party and government officials, including Jang and Hyon Yong-chol, a former defense chief who was put to death in 2015.
In a New Year's speech, the North's leader expressed rare regret over his inability to perform better, which analysts say is an attempt to paint himself as a caring leader.
"He is likely to conduct numerous purges and overhauls that can shift responsibility for poor past performances to bureaucrats this year," showed a report by the Institute for National Security Strategy.
Experts said that the dismissal came amid a possible power struggle among the country's key organizations to keep influential figures in check.
"Kim's case does not appear to be a purge, so I think that he could be re-instated after undergoing some re-education," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.