Special prosecutors announced Monday that they would seek another arrest warrant against Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of President Park Geun-hye and a primary suspect in a high-profile corruption scandal, after she had refused to undergo questioning over bribery allegations.
Choi rejected the questioning in apparent protest against what she calls a "coercive" probe. The probe team, led by Independent Counsel Park Young-soo, has dismissed her criticism of the investigation as groundless.
"We plan to seek an arrest warrant soon as Choi did not respond to our request to face questioning over bribery charges without any legitimate reason," Lee Kyu-chul, the team's spokesman, said during a regular press briefing.
Last Wednesday, the team secured the first arrest warrant against her and brought her to its office for a direct inquiry. Upon her arrival at the office, Choi lashed out at the prosecutors, calling them "undemocratic and coercive."
Choi is alleged to have extorted money and favors from large conglomerates, including Samsung Group, using her decades-old relationship with the president. She has refuted most of the charges leveled against her and rejected claims she colluded with the president.
Some observers said Choi appears to be stalling for time by rejecting the prosecutors' call to appear for a direct inquiry.
The independent counsel team's first investigation period ends Feb. 28. It can be extended by a month with the consent from Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, but it remains to be seen whether Hwang would approve of the extension.
During the press briefing, the spokesman also said that his team has secured evidence indicating that Choi may have tried to gain unlawful profits from the government's overseas aid program in Myanmar.
Related to this charge, the team plans to question South Korea's Ambassador to Myanmar Yoo Jae-kyung on Tuesday.
Graft charges are punishable by up to five years in jail or a fine of up to 10 million won (US$8,568)
Meanwhile, the probe team detained and indicted former Culture Minister Kim Jong-deok, former Vice Culture Minister Chung Kwan-joo and Shin Dong-churl, a former presidential secretary for political affairs, on a set of charges, including the abuse of authority, in connection with the allegations that the Park government blacklisted cultural figures deemed critical of it.
Regarding the blacklist allegations, investigators questioned Kim Ki-choon, a former presidential chief of staff, and former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun.
The prosecutors also questioned Kim Kyung-sook, former dean of Ewha Womans University's College of Science and Industry Convergence, over the allegations the school gave undue favors to Chung Yoo-ra, Choi's daughter, related to admissions procedures and grades.