The trial of a Japanese journalist accused of defaming President Park Geun-hye will be presided over by three justices at a criminal court in Seoul, officials said Friday.
"A defamation case is usually assigned to a court presided by one judge but we have decided to assign the case to a three-judge court, considering the importance of the issue," said an official at Seoul Central District Court. The court will assign the case Monday, he added.
Tatsuta Kato, head of the Seoul bureau of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper, was indicted Wednesday on defamation charges after he put out a report speculating that Park and an unidentified man might have had a secret meeting on the day of the deadly ferry disaster in April.
Citing a column published in a Korean newspaper, the Japanese reporter said that Park's whereabouts were unknown for seven hours, which had stirred rumours about the supposed secret meeting.
Prosecutors' decision to indict Kato sparked heated debate in Korea and overseas. A group of international journalists here said the South Korean government had infringed on the freedom of the press. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed "deep regrets" Thursday, saying the decision violated the common values of the international community.
Observers said the decision could become a thorny issue between South Korea and Japan and further damage the two nations' already frosty bilateral ties.
"It is quite a tricky issue," said Lee Won-deog, professor at the International Relations Department of Kookmin University in Seoul.
"I think it could have diplomatic ramifications and could possibly tarnish South Korea's global reputation as a democratic nation developed under fair law and principle."
Lee expressed concern saying that it could provide a "cause" for extreme rightists and anti-Korean activists in Japan.
Following the prosecutors' decision, Japanese media continued to raise speculations, in an apparent protest against the indictment of the Sankei reporter.
Yomiuri Shimbun reported Friday that South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae had orchestrated the decision.
"It is believed to be the result of a decision by the prosecutors' office to respond to the wishes of the Blue House, which has taken a hostile view of the newspaper company," the newspaper said on its English website The Japan News.
Asked about controversies mounting over the Sankei case, Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Min Kyung-wook said Friday that he had nothing to say on the issue.