North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was a no show at a key political commemoration on Saturday, fuelling more speculation that the 31-year-old leader may have been pushed aside.
For the first time in three years, the leader was not on the list of dignitaries at the celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Worker’s Party.
Most other high-level military and party officials were present at the celebrations but only a flower basket with Mr Kim’s name on it marked the missing leader’s existence. It remains unclear where the regime head is.
Elsewhere over the weekend, heavy machine gun fire from the North Korean side of the demilitarised zone targeted a balloon launched by South Korean activists which was reportedly dropping propaganda leaflets across the border.
South Korean military forces responded to the shooting with their own volleys, but the situation did not escalate. No casualties were reported on either side.
Both events underlie a marked vacuum of information about what exactly is going on in the hermetic kingdom. There is good reason to believe Mr Kim’s absence has something to do with the high purge-rate he has conducted over his brief career at the top.
Mr Kim is also the last in line in the dynastic Kim legacy of the country’s founders. So a mix of political nervousness and opportunity could have converged in the minds of some of the North Korean generals or elites that perhaps quietly overthrowing the young leader was prudent.
Adding heat to this analysis, Gen. Hwang Pyong So, who stepped into the public spotlight by organising bilateral talks with the South, could fit the profile of a high-ranking officer with cause and opportunity to take control of the kingdom.
Mr Hwang turned down a meeting with South Korea’s Prime Minister Park Geun-hye before leading a top-level delegation on a surprise visit earlier in September to attend the Asian Games.
Some analysts speculate that Mr Hwang could be in control of the nation. One way of knowing if this suggesting is accurate is whether he meets with the South’s leader in the near future.
Other generals who fear for their life or political position are jockeying for position behind the scenes as well, so more movement and action is to be expected.
A Mr Kim no show at the anniversary and a sudden rise in military staff travelling across the demilitarised zone could indicate a deeper change in the North.
However, the anniversary was not a landmark year (69th) and the generals may be taking orders from the traditional hierarchy. It is almost impossible for open source analysts to truly know what is going on.
But something doesn’t smell right in the “Hermit Kingdom”. A coup might not be the answer to the riddles (although it does fit many of the questions), but even if Mr Kim returns to the scene soon, it is clear that his powers are significantly weakened.