SEOUL - The South Korean government lifted a departure ban Tuesday on Tatsuya Kato, former chief of The Sankei Shimbun's Seoul Bureau, who has been accused of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Kato, 48, is currently on trial, indicted without arrest by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office over the alleged defamation of Park.
According to The Sankei Shimbun, the prosecutors office notified Kato's lawyer on Tuesday morning that the ban had been lifted. The departure ban, which has continued for eight months since August last year, was about to expire on Wednesday.
Kato returned to Japan on Tuesday night. He is expected to visit South Korea to attend the next session of the trial, which is scheduled for Monday.
The prosecutors office released a statement on Tuesday offering their reasons for the ban having been lifted, saying: "The investigation into evidence, and hearings on major points in dispute, have been completed. The defendant has not opposed the court's judgment that the article reported a false story. The Sankei Shimbun also guarantees his attendance at the trial."
According to one source, the prosecutors office issued a request to lift the ban to the South Korean Justice Ministry on Monday, and the ministry lifted the ban on Tuesday.
The departure ban on Kato has developed into a diplomatic issue between Japan and South Korea. The Japanese government has repeatedly asked the South Korean government to lift the ban, at occasions such as a foreign ministerial meeting and also at talks at the director-general level.
The trial started in November last year. At a recent session, held on March 30, the presiding judge commented, regarding a rumour that Park met with a former male aide on the day of the Sewol ferry disaster in April last year, "It has proved to be false to the degree that there is no reasonable place for doubt." Kato also wrote in The Sankei Shimbun dated April 7 that he had no objection to that finding.
Key points in the dispute have shifted to issues such as the article's public interest value, and the presence or absence of the purpose of defamation.
A writer for the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, whose column Kato quoted in the article, is set to be examined as a witness, while the closing argument and other parts of the trial still remain ahead.
Takeshi Kobayashi, head of the editorial bureau at the Sankei's Tokyo office, said in a statement Tuesday: "We are pleased that the former bureau chief's freedom to travel has finally been recovered after the eight-month restriction. On the other hand, the trial for the former bureau chief, on a charge of defamation over the column posted on the Sankei website, still continues. This is a significant infringement of free speech, and we call for the charges to be dropped at the earliest possible opportunity."