Japanese reporter Tatsuya Kato of Sankei Shimbun newspaper arrives at the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 (Photo: AP)
A Japanese journalist was acquitted Thursday of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-Hye over his report on her whereabouts at the time of a fatal ferry disaster, in a case that strained diplomatic relations.
Tatsuya Kato, former Seoul bureau chief for Japan's Sankei Shimbun daily, was put on trial in December last year on a charge of criminal libel for an article he wrote questioning where Park was on the day the Sewol passenger ferry sank, killing 300 people.
The article picked up unproven rumours circulating in the South Korean media that the unmarried Park had disappeared for a tryst with her former aide when the boat sank off South Korea's southern coast.
A Seoul court said Thursday Kato's article had defamed her as "an individual", but accepted his argument that it was intended to serve the public interest and found him innocent of the defamation charge.
"The court declares the accused was not guilty of defaming Park in the capacity of the president as she is a public figure and her activities are the subject of public attention," the Seoul Central District Court said in the verdict.
It added the freedom of the press "must be respected to the full" for the development of democracy, although the rumours over Park's whereabouts turned out to be false.
Seoul prosecutors had demanded a guilty verdict and an 18-month jail term for Kato, arguing he had intended to defame Park.
Kato and the newspaper welcomed the verdict, saying prosecutors should respect the court's decision and give up any attempt to appeal.
"This is the outcome I expected," Kato told journalists in Seoul before flying back home.
A statement from the Sankei Shimbun said: "We call on the South Korean prosecution to refrain from appealing the case by respecting the will of the court, which calmly assessed the argument of the defence...from the perspective of democracy and freedom of speech."
There was no immediate comment from prosecutors as to whether they would appeal, but they are widely expected to do so.
At the beginning of the trial, Senior Judge Lee Dong-Geun presiding over a three-judge panel read a request from South Korea's foreign ministry that the court consider positively Japan's appeal for leniency.
The ministry noted that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two neighbouring countries and their ever-frozen ties now showed signs of thawing.
After being banned from leaving South Korea for nine months, Kato was finally allowed to return to Tokyo in April, but kept his word to present himself to the court for the verdict.
The trial had further irritated already inflamed ties between the South and its former colonial power Japan, which have for decades bickered over history and territorial disputes.
Relations have showed signs of improvement in recent months, including with a summit between Park and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Seoul in November.
Abe said Thursday he hoped the verdict would help push Japan-South Korea relations forward.
Abe told reporters in Tokyo that he welcomed the verdict, saying he was hoping that the acquittal would have "positive effects" on ties.
Seoul also voiced hope for an improvement in relations.
"With the burden caused by the trial removed, we hope that (the verdict) will become an opportunity to improve bilateral relations," said a foreign ministry official who declined to be named.
The Sankei -- a centre-right daily -- has suggested it was being singled out by South Korean authorities for its campaign to reverse a Japanese apology for forcing Korean women into brothels during WWII.