TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan lodged a stern protest with South Korea on Thursday over the indictment of a Japanese journalist for defamation of the South Korean president, but said the door for dialogue between the two countries' leaders should stay open.
South Korean prosecutors on Wednesday indicted the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan's Sankei Shimbun newspaper, Tatsuya Kato, after concluding that a report he wrote about President Park Geun-hye on Aug. 3 was based on "false information
The article discussed Park's personal life and whereabouts on the day of a deadly ferry disaster in April.
"We have made stern representations that it was extremely regrettable in the light of freedom of press and relations between Japan and South Korea that the (former) bureau chief was indicted, and that we are deeply concerned about the situation," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
Junichi Ihara, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, conveyed the protest to a senior official at the South Korean embassy in Tokyo, Suga said in an afternoon news conference.
The action was a departure from the norms expected of democratic countries, Suga said earlier on Thursday.
"In particular, the law should be enforced with restraint in terms of freedom of press, which should be treated with utmost respect in democratic countries.
"That's an international norm. This is a departure from such an international norm by a big margin."
Sankei's Kato has not been arrested but remains barred from leaving South Korea, where he has faced questioning by South Korean prosecutors.
The Sankei Shimbun reported on its website on Wednesday that Kato had been indicted and said he had told prosecutors "he believed writing about where Park was, and how she responded to the ferry sinking, had a bearing on the public good."
The Aug. 3 report on the Sankei website related to Park's whereabouts on April 16, when a ferry carrying 476 people capsized and sank. More than 300 people were declared dead or missing in the country's worst maritime disaster in 44 years.
The indictment could complicate Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to secure a summit with President Park, whom the premier has been trying to meet since she came to office last year.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have cooled over the past two years, largely over the issue of Korean "comfort women", as those forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War Two are known.
Asked about Japan's stance on a summit meeting with South Korea, Suga said, "The door for dialogue is always open, and a meeting should be held all the more because there are issues. That's Japan's policy, and nothing has been changed."
South Korea maintains that Japan has not sufficiently atoned for the women's suffering and has protested against Tokyo's review in June of a landmark 1993 apology that acknowledged the involvement of Japanese authorities in coercing the women.
More recently, Abe has faced pressure from some of his conservative allies to replace the 1993 government statement.
Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, William Mallard and Kaori Kaneko; Editing by Clarence Fernandez