In a move that consolidates civilian control over South Korea's powerful armed forces, President Kim Young Sam fired three generals Monday, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for taking part in a 1979 coup.
Kim also accepted the resignation of a fourth top officer, the chief of naval operations, for corruption involving pay for promotions.
The three generals were removed for "breaking the chain of command" when they helped two major generals take control of South Korea during confusion that followed the assassination of ruling strongman Park Chung Hee 14 years ago. The two major generals, Roh Tae Woo and Chun Doo Hwan, subsequently served consecutive terms as president of South Korea.
In a separate sign of his determination to walk an independent path, Kim broke with Washington's high-profile effort to press North Korea into opening its nuclear facilities for international inspection. In a major policy speech, he struck a conciliatory note toward his Stalinist neighbor.
Kim has moved quickly to put his stamp on South Korea's policies. A major reform effort has resulted in nearly 1,000 public officials being arrested, fired or reprimanded since he took office in February as the first civilian president in three decades.
The purge of the top generals will be followed by a shake-up that could affect 30 more generals and numerous lower-ranking officers, officials said.
Presidential spokesman Lee Kyung Jae said, however, that no members of the military will be punished. He also ruled out the possibility of arresting former Presidents Roh and Chun or any others tied to the suppression in 1980 of an uprising in the southwestern town of Kwangju. The official toll then was about 200 civilians killed, but dissidents said the number was much higher.
"This action closes the chapter of military intervention in politics that has stained our constitutional history," Lee said.
In a move that boosts the status of the air force, that service's chief of staff, Lee Yang Ho, will replace disgraced Gen. Lee Pil Sup as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becoming the first non-army officer to fill the post.
As Kim has moved to take control of the military, he has also sought to play down the threat of North Korea, a move that could put him in conflict with the U.S. military.
U.S. military analysts believe that North Korea may be completing the manufacture of a nuclear bomb. Senior U.S. officers have also warned that North Korea is prepared for a surprise attack on the south. The United States has sought the cooperation of China and Japan in its effort to force North Korea to open its nuclear facilities for inspection.
In Washington, the State Department announced Monday that senior-level talks with North Korea, focusing on the nuclear issue, will begin in New York on June 2.
Kim offered an olive branch to North Korea in a speech at the opening session of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, a regional business group. He offered "opportunities for economic development" if North Korea would come clean on its nuclear program.
In what he called "the new diplomacy," Kim called for an end to a foreign policy in this country that is "hostage" to conflict between the two Koreas. Sounding more like a father talking to a naughty child than to a bitter enemy, Kim added, "We will be so proud when North Korea becomes an active member of the international community and thereby promotes national dignity."
Kim has proposed talks on Korean unification Thursday at the border village of Panmunjom, but the north has yet to respond.