Speculation is growing that hardline North Korean generals were behind the execution of leader Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-taek and that Kim was merely their pawn.
That would be worrying for South Korea, which would face an increased threat of military provocations.
Park Hyung-joong at the Korea Institute for National Unification said Jang's purge was part of a power struggle where factions in the military that Jang had stripped of their lucrative businesses tried to regain them.
Forces opposed to Jang, who was seen as a moderate, used a purported challenge to Kim's sole authority as an excuse to remove the eminence grise and regain control of their money-making operations.
If that is true, then the only faction strong enough to pull off such a plot is the powerful military.
Thomas Schafer, the German ambassador to North Korea, said recently that Kim was forced by the military to purge Jang and that he had "no choice."
Some experts believe that Kim is just a puppet being controlled by unseen forces. One former South Korean minister who had been in charge of diplomacy and national security affairs, told the Chosun Ilbo in a telephone interview, "Looking at Jang Song-taek's sentence and the events surrounding it, I wonder if Kim Jong-un is being pushed around by an unseen figure."
The crimes Jang was found guilty of, such as ruining the North Korean economy and living conditions of its people and attempting a coup d'état, would be seen as direct insults to the sanctity of the leader and considered taboo in North Korea, the official said.
Why would Kim risk weakening his support base by getting rid of his powerful uncle and guardian? One researcher at a state-run think tanks here said, "If there is a group of powerful figures who are controlling Kim Jong-un, it makes sense to use him because he has the legitimacy of his ancestry" as a direct descendant of nation founder Kim Il-sung.