South Korean refugees in 1950. According to declassified American documents, the military fired on anyone approaching its lines to deter infiltrators.
A commission charged with investigating wartime atrocities has found that American troops killed groups of South Korean civilians on 138 separate occasions during the Korean War.
But in a flurry of rulings made in the past few days, the commission decided not to seek compensation or criminal charges in about 130 of the cases either for lack of evidence or because it found that the killings were militarily justified.
The findings, which have not been formally announced and will end the commission’s work, appear to reflect the desire of the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak to wrap up the inquiry and to avoid antagonizing the United States.
The commission will recommend that South Korea start negotiations with Washington to seek compensation for the victims in the remaining eight cases, the president of the commission said Friday.
In the other 130 cases, the commission could not find evidence of illegality by the American military or it determined that the deaths resulted from “military necessity,” said Lee Young-jo, president of the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“They were more like cases of negligence than of liability or war crimes,” said Mr. Lee, whose commission wrapped up its four-year-old investigation on June 30. “For such a low level of unlawfulness, I don’t think any government negotiations with the United States for compensation are necessary.”
In Washington, the State Department praised the commission’s work. “We welcome the efforts of the Republic of Korea Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate abuses of human rights and efforts to correct any possible inaccuracy in the historical record,” said Mark C. Toner, a State Department spokesman.
The commission’s conclusions were not greeted so warmly, however, by the families of the victims.
“Our government is cowering before the big U.S. government,” said Lee Chang-geun, 77, whose parents were among an estimated 300 South Korean soldiers, railway officials, students and other civilians killed on July 11, 1950, when American aircraft bombed the train station in Iri, a southern town many miles behind the front line.
Two weeks earlier, on June 25, the North Korean Army invaded the South, starting the war. The United States fought alongside South Korea in an intervention that left more than 36,000 American soldiers dead and has sown both gratitude and pain among South Koreans ever since.
“I want to ask the Americans: Is it O.K. to bomb civilians by mistake?” Mr. Lee said. “I want to ask: Just because their military came to help South Korea, is it O.K. to kill South Korean civilians and keep mum about it?”
An outgrowth of South Korea’s democratization, the commission began its work in late 2005 under the auspices of the liberal government of President Roh Moo-hyun, delving into a dark chapter of South Korean history, discussions of which were taboo under the country’s past military governments.
It has confirmed that during the first chaotic weeks of the war, when North Korean troops barreled down the peninsula, the South’s military and police rounded up thousands of suspected leftists — historians say as many as 200,000 — and executed them to prevent them from aiding the invading forces.
The investigators also disclosed that North Korean troops and southern leftists massacred South Korean rightists. Suspicions spawned by the ensuing revenge killings still divide South Korea.
The commission was handicapped from its inception by political battles between liberals and conservatives. One of the most contentious issues of all was how to deal with wartime killings by American forces.
The eight mass killings that the commission determined as unlawful and eligible for compensation by Washington were all investigated by commissioners appointed under Mr. Roh’s government.
Citing witness accounts and declassified American documents, the commission found that American pilots, warned about potential North Korean infiltrators, indiscriminately attacked refugee groups, hitting them with machine-gun fire, missiles and napalm.
An estimated 855 refugees were killed, including 200 crammed inside a cave and suffocated by fires set off by air attacks; 100 huddled on a beach and shelled by an American ship; and 35 attacked by American aircraft in Kyongju, a town behind the lines in the south.
The commission — which had no power to force testimony, indict or offer reparations — said the attacks violated international conventions on war and asked the Korean government to seek compensation from Washington. It also asked the government to enact laws to compensate victims of the killings by South Korean authorities.
The government has yet to respond to those requests, and victims fear that it is unlikely to, with a conservative pro-American president in power in Seoul.
In December, the government began replacing liberal commissioners whose terms had ended with conservatives. The commission has since dismissed victims’ calls for extending its work.
“They have so far uncovered just a tip of the iceberg,” said Oh Won-rok, 70, who said his father was killed without trial by the South Korean police in July 1950. “So many victims did not come forward, out of fear. The current conservative government wants to keep it all buried.” Mr. Oh leads a national association of 80 survivors’ groups.
Mr. Lee, who became president of the commission last December, said that since he took over, the panel had shifted the criteria for faulting American wartime actions. It gave more consideration to “military necessity,” the difficult situations the troops faced during the war and the need for testimony from American veterans.
The panel gave up hopes of seeking help from Washington in acquiring such testimony when President George W. Bush was in office, said Kim Dong-choon, a former liberal commissioner.
Between the old and current panel, “there was a fundamental difference over how to view the U.S. intervention in the Korean War,” Mr. Kim said. “It’s sad that this work could not be finished by those who had fought for the investigations but is coming to an end under those who had doubts about them.”
The United States has investigated the deaths of refugees only at the South Korean village of No Gun Ri in July 1950, acknowledging killings there in 2001 but rejecting survivors’ demands for an apology and compensation.
Since 1999, journalists and historians have uncovered many declassified American military documents showing that the military had adopted a policy of shooting refugees approaching its lines — and American pilots were often directed to strafe refugee columns — all to guard against infiltrators.