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.
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