Same old song: Samsung Group's Jay Y. Lee leaves a Seoul court hearing. Public outrage at the latest scandal involving the country's chaebol may finally force real reforms... or not. Photo: Reuters

A Seoul court on Thursday rejected an arrest warrant sought for Samsung Group heir Lee Jae-yong, part of a widening probe into a corruption scandal engulfing President Park Geun-hye.

The Seoul Central District Court turned down a request by prosecutors for the warrant to arrest Lee, also known as J.Y. Lee, on charges of bribery, embezzlement and perjury. Investigators said Lee gave or promised some 43 billion won (US$36 million) in bribes to Park’s jailed confidante Choi Soon-sil.

The payment was allegedly in return for the state pension fund’s backing of a merger of two Samsung affiliates — deemed crucial for Lee’s hereditary succession of power at Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker.

“It is difficult to accept the reasons, need and justification” to issue the warrant, the court said in a statement released by the prosecutors, citing the lack of clear-cut evidence.

The decision is likely to come as a major relief for the country’s largest conglomerate and for Lee, who has tried to fill the vacuum in the group’s leadership since his father was incapacitated by a heart attack in 2014. However, it represents a setback for attempts to rein in the country’s powerful family run business groups, known as chaebol, after years of corruption and corporate governance scandals.