EDITOR'S NOTE: Jean H. Lee, AP's Korea bureau chief, has made 11 trips to North Korea since 2008, including eight in the past year.
Just before North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died, the skies glowed red above sacred Mount Paektu and the impenetrable sheet of ice at the heart of the mystical volcano cracked with a deafening roar.
At least, that's the official account of the supernatural circumstances preceding Kim's death last Saturday, as relayed by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The news agency is one of the chief propaganda organs tasked with building up the quasi-religious mystique around the Kim family, which has ruled North Korea since its founding in 1948.
The tools for making the myth have been developed over two generations, dating back to Kim's father, late President Kim Il Sung.
But with Kim Jong Il's sudden death and the ascension of his young son Kim Jong Un, North Korea's image artisans will have to do it all at warp speed.
Some of the hallmarks of the mythmaking machine in North Korea:
Founder Kim Il Sung remains North Korea's "eternal president" and lies embalmed at his former presidential palace. Son Kim Jong Il took over after his father's death in 1994 in what was the communist world's first hereditary succession. He's now lying in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
Kim Jong Il is credited with rewriting the main rules behind North Korea's one-family ideology, called the Ten Principles, after being tapped as his father's successor. His revisions revolved around mythologizing the Kim family and making them central to the nation's identity.
The two late leaders' birthdays are the nation's biggest holidays, and even the calendar year begins with Kim Il Sung's birth year, 1912. This year is Juche 100.
With Kim Jong Un poised to extend the Kim family dynasty into an additional generation, North Korea is quickly building the mythology by emphasizing his bloodline and the Kim family legacy, from its roots as revolutionaries fighting the Japanese to their spiritual role as protectors of the North Korean people.
Kim Jong Il's official biography says he was "heaven sent," born in a log cabin in Mount Paektu while his father was fighting the Japanese.
"Wishing him to be the lodestar that would brighten the future of Korea, they hailed him as the Bright Star of Mount Paektu," his biography reads.
Lore has it soldiers spread the news of his birth by inscribing the announcement on trees across the country — a practice that North Koreans continue today by carving the leaders' messages into rocks and mountainsides.
Soviet records, however, reportedly indicate Kim Jong Il was born a year earlier in Siberia.
The account of his death was just as mythic. His obituary in state media called him the "illustrious commander born of heaven," and on Wednesday, KCNA said a Manchurian crane spotted in the city of Hamhung circled a statue of Kim Il Sung for hours before dropping its head and taking off toward Pyongyang. The crane is a traditional Korean symbol of longevity.
"Even the sky seemed to writhe in grief," KCNA said, reporting blinding blue flashes, thunder and heavy snow near the Demilitarized Zone. "He was, indeed, a great saint born of heaven."
The mythmaking for Kim Jong Un has begun as well, with an editorial in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper calling him "born of heaven." However, details of his birth, and the accompanying legend, have not yet been revealed.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press he is 27 years old, though many observers suspect he will skip a few years and celebrate his 30th birthday in January 2012.
That would make for a mystic convergence of numbers: Kim Jong Il would have turned 70 and Kim Jong Un would turn 30 in the year that Kim Il Sung would have turned 100.
A towering bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, his arm outstretched, lords over the capital city from atop Mansu Hill. In the days since Kim Jong Il's death, mourners have been streaming to the hill to lay flowers at the statue as they typically do for the leaders' birthdays and other major occasions.
Kim Il Sung's smiling face also beams from the face of major buildings, though his portrait at the Grand People's Study House in central Pyongyang was replaced this week by one of Kim Jong Il.
Portraits of the two late leaders feature prominently in every building in North Korea, father and son side by side or standing together in colorful portraits, murals and larger-than-life mosaics interspersed in every village and city across the country.
Some also portray Kim Jong Il's mother, Kim Jong Suk, considered the mother of North Korea.
Similar portraits of the next leader, Kim Jong Un, have not been revealed, though his name has begun appearing in recent months on plaques commemorating visits and offering blessings to all three leaders.
North Koreans are never far from their leaders: Most wear small lapel pins of one of the leader's faces on their left side, "close to our hearts," a government official said.
Kim Jong Un bears a startling resemblance to Kim Il Sung during his early years as leader. Some North Koreans say they were moved to tears after seeing Kim Jong Un for the first time last year because he so resembled his grandfather.
The Kims ruled North Korea under the title "suryong," or "leader," but are often referred to by other titles as well.Comment on this story
Kim Il Sung, who remains the nation's "eternal President," is also commonly called the "Great Leader."
Kim Jong Il was known as the "Dear Leader" until taking power; during his rule, he was called "Great Comrade," "Supreme Commander" and often "Father."
Kim Jong Un was dubbed "Young General" after being made a four-star general in September 2010. He became "Respected General" in 2011, and was elevated to "Great Successor" after his father's death. North Korean state media this week have referred to him as "Outstanding Leader."