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Instability in Pyongyang fuels reunification issue

The idea of reunification on the Korean peninsula has been floated by both Seoul and Pyongyang recently. Meanwhile, questions arise about the extent of Kim Jong Un's power, and whether there has been a de facto coup.

Reunification has found its way into political speeches on both sides of the 38th parallel. At a speech to mark the first anniversary since she took office, South Korean President Park Geun-hye raised eyebrows with her talk of reunification.

Park described the potential "jackpot" that the dawn of a new era on the peninsula would bring about, uniting South Korean technology and North Korean natural resources. A special committee, reporting directly to the president, has been set up to work on "systematic and constructive" proposals for the future.

In the past, South Korea has been worried about the concept of reunification, preferring to put the idea on hold because of the enormous wealth gap between the two countries. However, Seoul would now prefer to see reunification take place sooner rather than later, according to Ian Bremmer, founder of the political risk research and consultancy company Eurasia Group.

Voters queue to cast their ballots to elect deputies to the 13th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) in Pyongyang, in this photo released by Kyodo March 9, 2014. North Korea holds nation-wide elections to pick deputies to the Supreme People's Assembly for a new five-year term. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo

The "elections" were a rubber-stamping process for approved candidates who ran unopposed

The catalysts for Seoul's new way of thinking have, according to Bremmer, been the changes that took place at the top of the leadership in North Korea, as well as a change in its stance towards the South.

In December, Jang Song Thaek, who had been the de facto second-in-command under the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, was suddenly arrested and executed.

That development was welcomed by current leader Kim Jong Un in his New Year speech, who went on to stress his openness to the idea of Korean reunification. "We will join hands with anyone who opts to give priority to the nation and wishes for its reunification, regardless of his or her past, and continue to strive for better inter-Korean relations," he said.

The speech was followed shortly after by the first reunions for divided families from the two countries in more than three years. They took place despite the staging of annual joint military maneuvers between the US and South Korea - and the consternation these caused in the North.

Meanwhile, the South has been intently following the situation in the North, to see how the regime consolidates itself after the execution of Jang.

Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek (C) being arrested during an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, 08 December 2013. Jang has been removed from power, North Korea's state news agency confirmed 09 December. The husband of Kim's aunt Kim Kyong Hui, was vice chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission and widely seen as the second most-influential figure in the nation. EPA/YONHAP SOUTH KOREA OUT.

Some say the demise of Kim's uncle strengthens the leader's position, others think quite the opposite

North Korea's "elections" for the Supreme People's Assembly, which took place in March this year, serve as both a census and a rubber stamping process for candidates approved by the regime.

"There will be new delegates elected, between the ages of 30 and 50," said Park Young-ho, of the Korean Institute for Reunification. Since the death of Kim Jong Il, and the coming to power of Kim Jong Un, roughly half of the top 280 party cadres and officials have been removed.

Young Kim as a puppet

The crucial question being asked in Seoul and abroad is, however, whether the young Kim, who is thought to be aged 31, really does hold the reins of power in Pyongyang. Since the shock execution of his uncle, there have been two theories.

According to one of them, Kim has become stronger without his mentor and erstwhile protector. "He has created a coalition, " writes researcher Park Young-ja from the Center for North Korean Studies in Seoul. "He has disciplined the military and brought about a generational change."

The other theory is that the regime has become even more unstable, with the execution of Kim's uncle raising doubts about the new leader's absolute power.

A group of North Korea exiles who run the New Focus International website in Seoul claim that, according to information from Pyongyang, Kim is only leader for the sake of appearances.

In reality, he is a figurehead and a stooge for a collective group that serves as the power behind the throne, writes former North Korean propagandist Jang Jin-sung. Shocking as it may be for North Koreans, says Jang, "our country is no longer ruled by a Kim." According to Jang, who fled the North in 2004, Kim is nothing more than the puppet of a secret junta.

The all-powerful ones

Jang claims that it is now the Organization and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers' Party that truly wields the power in Pyongyang. Belonging to the inner circle of power are Kim Kyong-ok, believed to be the most powerful of them, Minister for State Security Kim Won Hong and the recently-elected Hwang Pyong So, who recently appeared in public with Kim Jong Un.

Members of the Kim family and descendants of the "partisan generation," meanwhile, are not among the powerful few. Even Korean Peoples' Army general Chong Ryong Hae, perhaps Kim's closest confidante, must answer to the department.

After taking power in the early nineties, Kim Jong Il built up the department as a secret powerbase through which to exert absolute power, circumventing the official institutions.

It is the department, for example, that appointed all of the highest party cadres and officials. Then, as now, lower officials must submit their regulations, policies and programs to the department for approval. A more recent development, however, is that they are said to report personally - and show their utmost respect.

Coup from the back room

This undated picture, released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 17, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting the February 20 factory of the Korean People's Army (KPA), producing varieties of foodstuff at undisclosed place in North Korea. AFP PHOTO / KCNA

According to New Focus International, Kim Jong Un is no more than a figurehead

The Organization and Guidance Department's members are also said to be responsible for Jang Song Thaek's fall from grace, as well as his execution, the defectors claim. Having seen his confession on video, Kim Jong Un reportedly wanted his uncle to be spared, and "only" sent to one of North Korea's labor camps.

In an official statement by the politburo, Jang was accused of not accepting the policies and direction of the party. Tellingly, what was missing in that document was the additional clause "under the direction of the Great Leader," which had previously been obligatory.

For New Focus International, there is one clear conclusion; a coup d'etat has taken place. The masterminds of the all-powerful Organization and Guidance Department no longer take orders from Kim Jong Un. While they may tolerate Kim Jong Un as leader, say the defectors, they only do so to consolidate power for themselves.