• South Korea Foreign Ministry: Case `obstacle' in Japan ties
  • Prosecutors sought 18-month sentence over newspaper article

A South Korean court on Thursday found a Japanese journalist not guilty of a defamation charge stemming from an article about President Park Geun Hye, in a ruling that may help improve fractious ties between the two nations.

Tatsuya Kato, the former Seoul bureau chief at the Sankei newspaper, wrote a column in August 2014 that cited reports that Park went missing for several hours on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster that April, and referred to rumors she had been with a male former aide. Relatives of the more than 300 people, mostly high-school students, killed in the nation’s worst ferry accident in decades, attacked Park over her response to the tragedy.

"This case falls within the realm of protecting freedom of press, considering the accused wrote for the public good of Japanese people and that there is no rational ground for limiting the freedom of press for foreign journalists,” said Justice Lee Dong Geun at the Seoul Central District Court. The article “showed considerable impropriety, yet it is hard to conclude that he had an intention to defame the president as a public figure,” Lee said.

The ruling may help improve ties between the neighboring nations, whose relationship is dogged by a territorial dispute and disagreements over Japan’s past colonization of the Korean peninsula. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held his first formal bilateral summit with Park in November, but talks aimed at resolving mutual animosity over history have so far made little progress.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry views the case as a “considerable obstacle” in relations with Japan and asked the court to consider Japan’s concerns as the ties between the two nations are showing signs of improvement, Justice Lee said at the start of the trial that lasted three hours.

Following the ruling, Abe told reporters in Tokyo that he was pleased with the verdict and hoped it would have a positive influence on his country’s ties with South Korea.

Prosecutors had sought an 18-month sentence for Kato, who was barred from leaving South Korea for several months in the early stages of his indictment.

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