OSLO, Norway, Dec. 10 - South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung highlighted Sunday the importance of the Catholic religion in his life and political struggle as he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

"I have lived, and continue to live, in the belief that God is always with me," Kim, 76, said in a speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize diploma and medal at Oslo City Hall.

The former dissident, who along with his second wife Lee Hee-Ho belongs to South Korea's Christian minority, said his religious beliefs helped him survive numerous hardships and life-threatening situations through the years.

He recalled that while exiled in Japan in August 1973, South Korean agents kidnapped him, tied him up, stuffed his mouth and placed him on a boat. But before they could throw him overboard, U.S. agents appeared in an aircraft and dissuaded them.

"Just when they were about to throw me overboard, Jesus Christ appeared before me with such clarity. I clung to him and begged him to save me," he said.

"At that very moment, an airplane came down from the sky to rescue me from the moment of death," he added.

"Five times I faced near death at the hands of dictators, six years I spent in prison, and 40 years I lived under house arrest or in exile and under constant surveillance," he said.

"I could not have endured the hardship without the support of my people and the encouragement of fellow democrats around the world. The strength also came from deep personal beliefs," he stressed.

Kim also said he shares the Nobel prize with the Korean people - and would have liked to share with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Since their historic summit meeting in June, North and South Korea have embarked on a series of friendly gestures, including reunions of relatives separated by decades of distrust, the reopening of liaison offices and an agreement to reconnect a cross-border railway.

Kim, a former political prisoner, won the prize for ``his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and East Asia in general and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea,'' the awards citation said.

More progress has been made in easing tensions between the two Koreas in recent months than in the half-century since the divided nation went to war.

But combat-ready armies, including 37,000 U.S. troops in the South, remain in place on both sides of the world's most heavily armed border. The two sides have yet to discuss arms reductions and troop pullbacks, sensitive topics that could take years to resolve.

``With the Nobel peace prize it is just the beginning of a greater mission,'' Kim said at a news conference in Oslo on Saturday. He pledged to devote the rest of his life to peace, democracy and the reunification of his homeland.

The two Koreas were divided into the communist North and the pro-Western South in 1945. They fought a war from 1950-53, which ended in an uneasy armistice, not a peace treaty.

Democratic reforms were introduced in South Korea in the late 1980s, and Kim won the presidential election in 1997 on his fourth attempt.

The Nobel prize boosted Kim's international standing. But he faces criticism at home that his administration is letting the North dictate the pace of rapprochement. The South Korean government is also preoccupied with economic problems, including rising unemployment.

The prize, which includes a medal, a diploma and 9 million Swedish kronor ($940,000), was presented at a more than hour-long ceremony at Oslo City Hall marked by music, flowers and speeches.

Before entering the heavily guarded hall, Kim was hailed by at least 2,000 Norwegian children. Inside, hundreds of people, including Norway's royal family, politicians and Korean guests, watched Kim accept his award.

The peace prize is the only Nobel awarded in Oslo, with the others presented in Stockholm, Sweden. They are always presented on Dec. 10, marking the date their benefactor, the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, died in 1896.

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