Hwang has been considered one of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un's most trusted aides, causing confusion as to what spurred the punishment. When Kim sat at a table in September to order a nuclear test, Hwang appeared by his side in photos released by North Korean state media.
Choe Ryong-hae was involved in ordering Hwang's punishment, as well as Kim. Choe was also featured the picture of Kim preparing for a nuclear test, South Korean intelligence sources told Reuters.
While analysts say it's too early to deduce certain conclusions, one theory states that Kim may be promoting infighting to ‘clip the wings' of top advisers who may want to overtake him. "It is hardwired into autocracy to have underlings in competition," Christopher Green, analyst at the Crisis Group said Tuesday.
Since 2014, Hwang was dubbed the head of the General Political Bureau for North Korea's military, empowering him to lead the military on behalf of Kim. Choe reportedly stands to gain from any loss of rank by Hwang.
Hwang may have started gaining too much power, ultimately threatening Kim. According to an expert from 38 North, which is sponsored by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Hwang "could not have continued in the capacity he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him… what (Kim's) doing can be described as clipping wings."