South Korea president's former aide denies 'tryst' in court

SEOUL (AFP) - A former aide of South Korean President Park Geun Hye appeared on Monday at the defamation trial of a Japanese reporter to deny rumours of an ill-timed tryst with his old boss.

Jeong Yun Hoe had worked as an adviser for Park while she was still a lawmaker, but quit his position in 2007 - several years before she successfully ran for president.

Tatsuya Kato, who until recently was Seoul bureau chief of the conservative Sankei Shimbun newspaper, is on trial over an article he wrote regarding Park's whereabouts on the day the Sewol passenger ferry sank in April causing the loss of 300 lives.

The August article suggested the unmarried president had disappeared for a tryst with Jeong at the time of the sinking.

In court on Monday, Jeong dismissed the report as a "ridiculous" fabrication that had "seriously tarnished" his reputation.

"It is clearly a false claim," he said, testifying that he had not seen or spoken to Park in years, save for a brief congratulatory phone call after she won the presidency.

Kato has denied criminal libel, which could see him jailed for up to seven years, saying his sole objective had been to report the public perception of Park in the wake of the Sewol disaster.

South Korean defamation law focuses on whether what was said or written was in the public interest - rather than whether it was true.

Media freedom group Reporters Without Borders has defended the Sankei journalist, while Japan has formally voiced "grave concern" over Kato's prosecution and questioned Seoul's commitment to press freedom.

Kato has argued that he was only echoing existing South Korean media reports, but Jeong said the Sankei article had presented "groundless slander" as fact rather than rumour.

"Certainly, he should be punished," Jeong said.

The Sankei, a robust centre-right daily that has campaigned to reverse an apology from Japan for forcing Korean women into wartime brothels, has suggested it is being singled out by Korean authorities.

Jeong is also a central figure in a separate scandal in which he allegedly meddled in state affairs by receiving regular briefings from presidential officials, despite having no official position in the administration.

In his testimony on Monday, he denied having any influence whatsoever over Park's policy decisions.