The Sankei Shimbun’s former Seoul bureau chief Tatsuya Kato visited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday after returning to Japan from South Korea, where he had been facing a travel ban, accused of defaming President Park Geun-hye.
“I thanked (Abe) for giving me encouragement by communicating promptly with South Korea and the international community,” said Kato, who returned home for the first time in about eight months after South Korea lifted a travel ban on Tuesday.
He expressed relief after arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda airport later the same day, saying he had expected the ban would be extended.
“As my trial is ongoing, I’ll try to explain the facts in a way that’s understandable in court,” he said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who met Kato separately on Wednesday, told reporters afterward that the Japanese government “will continue to call on the South Korean side for an appropriate response at various opportunities and levels.”
The South Korean justice minister imposed the travel ban on Kato on Aug. 7 after South Korean prosecutors determined an online article he wrote for the newspaper was defamatory, and renewed it eight times, most recently for a period of three months through Wednesday.
Kato, who is not under arrest, was indicted and is on trial at the Seoul Central District Court on charges of defaming Park in the article, by writing about rumors she was meeting secretly with a former male aide last April during the Sewol ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people.
Kato pleaded not guilty to the defamation charge. After the presiding judge in his trial said during a hearing on March 30 that the rumors about Park were false, the Sankei Shimbun ran a statement by Kato on April 7 saying that he did not intend to argue the point.
It is unusual for a travel ban on a foreigner who has been indicted in South Korea to be lifted before a court decision.
South Korean prosecutors, who had asked the ministry to lift the ban because deliberations on the most important points had been covered in court hearings, said they took the case into consideration from a humanitarian standpoint as Kato’s mother was ill and he promised to attend future hearings.
A senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters in Tokyo that the lifting of the travel ban is a matter of course, saying the Japanese government had repeatedly conveyed to South Korea its concern over the case on humanitarian grounds.
Ruling bloc and opposition lawmakers in Japan welcomed the development.
The Sankei Shimbun said in a statement it will urge South Korean authorities to drop Kato’s indictment as soon as possible as it is a “grave infringement” on freedom of the press.
Meanwhile, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated his country’s position that the case should not become a diplomatic issue between the two neighbors.
“The prosecution has handled the case in accordance with law and principles and it has nothing to do with bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan,” Noh Kwang-il told journalists. “So it’s not desirable for the case to become a diplomatic issue.”
Noh said the Justice Ministry had decided to lift the travel ban based on the country’s immigration laws.