He's the billionaire "prince" and de facto heir of one of the world's largest companies - and very soon he could facing the possibility of a jail term.

Lee Jae-yong, the 48-year-old vice chairman of Samsung Electronics, is facing an arrest warrant from Korean prosecutors investigating a massive corruption scandal which has already claimed the country's president.

Lee, Korea's third-richest person with a net worth of more than $10 billion, has been the de facto leader of Samsung since his father, Lee Kun-hee - Korea's richest person - suffered a crippling heart attack in 2014.

Samsung was founded by Lee's grandfather, Lee Byung-chul, in 1938, and today its revenue is equal to nearly one fifth of Korea's GDP.

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Often referred to by local media as the "Crown Prince of Samsung", Lee's succession as the head of the country's most important "chaebol", or family-controlled conglomerate, has been thrown into disarray.

Ironically, Lee faces allegations of offering a $48 million bribe to an associate of now impeached President Park Geun-hye in exchange for government support during a complicated reorganisation of the company intended to solidify his control.

Before becoming vice chairman in 2014, the famously private Lee had served in various roles since joining the company fulltime in 1991.

During his rise through the company, the younger Lee never even gave a formal interview on the record, out of deference for his father. Following the elder Lee's heart attack, many analysts worried that his son's management abilities were unproven.

His only solo venture outside of Samsung, an online business started in 2000 at the height of the dotcom boom, failed.

"We don't really know what he can do," Chang Sea Jin, chair in business policy at the National University of Singapore, told Bloomberg in 2014. "Everyone has always known that he would be the next emperor, so he's never had to prove anything."

But Lee was credited with forging a closer relationship with Apple founder Steve Jobs - leading negotiations that saw Samsung manufacture hardware for use in Apple devices, and led to the development of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays now used in Samsung Galaxy devices.

"Unlawful donations"

Samsung allegedly donated funds to various entities controlled by Choi Soon-sil, the jailed secretive confidante of the president, including two non-profit foundations and a winter sports centre run by Choi's niece.

Other charges alleged by prosecutors on Monday include embezzlement and lying under oath during a parliamentary hearing into the influence peddling scandal last month. A Seoul court will review the prosecutors' request on Wednesday, and a decision on whether to approve the arrest warrant could take two to three days, the Associated Press reported.

News that prosecutors were pursuing Lee, who symbolises the future of Korea's most important chaebol, shocked the conservative Asian country. Such leaders tend to be treated as vital for the national economy.

Samsung Electronics is a source of pride for many Koreans who equate its huge global success with national prestige. The company has gone through a rough patch in the past half-year, however, after its latest premium smartphone was found to be prone to catching fire.

Prosecutors understood worries that Lee's arrest could hurt the economy, but "we believed that it was even more important to carry out justice", a spokesman for the special prosecutors' team told reporters.

"The public demand that chaebol, especially Samsung, should not be an exception and that everyone should be equal before laws has become stronger," said Kim Sang-jo, executive director of Solidarity for Economic Reforms, a private watchdog on big businesses. "Prosecutors and judicial institutions cannot ignore the huge pressure from the public."

Prosecutors also indicted ex-health minister Moon Hyung-pyo on Monday on charges he abused his power to compel the national pension fund to support a contentious Samsung merger in 2015.

The national pension fund is the biggest shareholder in Samsung C&T, and its vote in favour of the company's merger with Cheil Industries helped facilitate Samsung's leadership succession, allowing Lee to increase his control over Samsung Electronics without spending any of his own money. Smaller shareholders said the merger unfairly benefited Samsung founding family members and hurt minority shareholders.

Samsung said it has never made donations to win favours. "We cannot accept the special prosecutors' argument that there were unlawful favours related to the merger or the leadership succession," Samsung said in a statement.

According to some experts, however, even if Lee is found guilty it could still be possible for him to run the company from prison.

"Chaebol executives have a history of managing from the jail, whether it be via lawyers or secretaries visiting them," Lee Kyung-mook, a professor at Seoul National University's Graduate School of Business, told Bloomberg.

Other leaders at Samsung, Hyundai Motor and SK, including Lee's father Lee Kun-hee, have been convicted in the past for embezzlement or tax evasion. But most avoided imprisonment and later won pardons from presidents who worried that the economy might suffer if they were jailed.

In turn, the businesses often responded to such pardons by announcing big investments or jobs. A former South Korean president pardoned Lee Kun-hee in 2009, in hopes he would help South Korea win a bid to host the Winter Olympic Games.

He was reinstated as a member of the International Olympic Committee after the pardon and South Korea won the bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics games in Pyeongchang.

- Additional reporting: AP