The court's refusal to issue an arrest warrant for Samsung Group's heir apparent Lee Jae-yong has dealt a blow to the special investigators who have been striving to prove the bribery allegation centred on President Park Geun-hye and her infamous friend Choi Soon-sil.
Though the independent counsel team vowed to carry on its investigation, doubts persist on whether the team will successfully secure further evidence within the time constraint.
"It is regretful that (the court) rejected the warrant request, but we plan to take necessary measures and carry on with our investigation in an unperturbed manner," the independent counsel team's spokesperson Lee Kyu-chul told reporters at a briefing Thursday.
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"We presume that the court held a different opinion on the legal assessment of Lee's charges."
The dismissal of the warrant does not mean that Lee is free of charges and the investigation on Samsung and Park will continue nevertheless, according to another official of the team.
The Seoul Central District Court, after some 18 hours of deliberation, decided at around 4:50 a.m.
Thursday not to issue an arrest warrant for the Samsung Electronics vice chairman.
"It is hard to acknowledge the reason, necessity and appropriateness of the arrest at the current stage (of the investigation)," the lower court said, citing the lack of evidence as reason for the rejection.
In particular, the court found it difficult to admit the alleged reciprocity between the president and the nation's No. 1 conglomerate, according to officials.
The 48-year-old business tycoon was immediately released from a detention centre in Seoul, where he had stayed behind bars for nearly 14 hours while waiting for the court's decision.
The failure to have the Samsung chief arrested is a major setback to the special prosecutor's efforts to establish a bribery case against President Park, but that is not all it is looking into in its widening investigation into the scandal.
Park is accused of allowing Choi to meddle in state affairs, access government secrets and extort money and favors from businesses by using their 40-year relationship.
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The special counsel team has focused on bribery, however, zeroing in on Samsung, the largest conglomerate in South Korea.
The major challenge is that most of the economic benefits were offered to the president's confidante Choi and her associates, while it is the president who is suspected of exerting power upon government departments and conglomerates.
It was for this reason that the prosecution's special probe team, which had led the investigation before the independent counsel, had excluded the president's bribery charges in its final arraignment.
Prosecutors had also defined conglomerates, including Samsung Group, not as suspects but as victims of the high-profile coercion.
Circumstantial evidence gathered so far has indicated that a massive sum of money -- 43 billion won (S$52.36 million) according to investigators -- was handed from Samsung Group to Choi and her family members.
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The special counsel claims that the amount was paid in exchange for Park putting pressure on the National Pension Service to support a merger between the group's two affiliates -- Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries.
The disputed merger of the two units increased Lee's equity ratio in the group, helping his inheritance of control over the company.
The NPS was at the time the largest shareholder of Samsung C&T and later faced hundreds of billions in losses due to the merger.
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But the dismissal of the warrant reflects that the court is not convinced, suggesting that the president exerted influence on behalf of Choi.
Prosecutors earlier claimed that President Park and Choi should be seen as accomplices in the entire scandal, as the two share common economic interests.
Now facing a roadblock, the independent counsel is highly likely to extend its 70-day period by another month so that it can carry on with the probe up to the end of March.
Also, the face-to-face questioning of the president may be put off to mid-February or later, according to observers.