S Korea lifts travel ban on Japanese journalist in defamation trial

SEOUL - South Korea lifted a travel ban on a Japanese journalist on trial for a charge of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a prosecution official said on Tuesday, removing what has been an irritant in bilateral relations.

South Korean prosecutors in October indicted the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper, Tatsuya Kato, after concluding a news article he wrote about Park on Aug. 3 was based on "false information." An official at the prosecutors' office said the travel ban against Kato had been lifted, without elaborating.

South Korean media said the decision was made on "humanitarian consideration" because his mother is ailing and he has been apart from his family in Japan for eight months.

Kato was not arrested but had been barred from leaving South Korea.

Kato told Reuters he did not have immediate plans to leave South Korea for Japan, and planned to continue attending his trial. The next hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Japan's embassy in Seoul declined to make any immediate comment.

The Aug. 3 report in Sankei related to Park's whereabouts on April 16 last year, the day a ferry carrying 476 people capsized and sank. More than 300 people died in the country's worst maritime disaster in more than 40 years.

Japan has protested the indictment saying it was regrettable and that Tokyo was concerned that the legal action could infringe press freedom and negatively affect bilateral ties.

Relations between the two countries have cooled over what South Korea sees as Japanese leaders' reluctance to properly atone for its colonial wartime past, and in particular over the issue of Korean "comfort women" as those forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War Two are known.

But the two countries and China have sought to overcome diplomatic tensions, pledging at a foreign ministers' meeting last month to work toward a summit of their leaders.

On Tuesday, South Korea was scheduled to host a meeting of security officials from Japan for the first time in more than five years.