Last month, US State Department undersecretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman chided South Korea and China for not improving ties with Japan, saying that "to move ahead, we have to see beyond what was to envision what might be".
Of course, the South Koreans would like to envision the future possibilities. But how do two nations - one a former colony and the other a brutal coloniser - begin to think about the future together when there is no reconciliation?
South Korea-Japan relations have never been smooth, the degree of warmth - or rather, chilliness - varying depending on who happens to be in power in the two countries. President Park Geun Hye clashed head-on with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, maintaining there would be no improvement in relations unless the issue of wartime Japanese military sexual slavery was resolved. Meanwhile, Mr Abe seeks to "revise" Japan's wartime history, including a denial of the Japanese government's involvement in the operation of the military brothel system. Needless to say, bilateral relations are icy.
In January 2013, Mr Abe told Parliament that as a prime minister, he would refrain from making further remarks on the issue of reviewing the Kono Statement of 1993 which officially acknowledged that women were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military. He also said he would stand by the official stances of his predecessors on the issue. But the Abe administration commissioned a panel to review the Kono Statement.
In February last year, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan was considering revising its apology to former military sex slaves, which led to a strong protest from Ms Park. The next month, under US pressure, Mr Abe changed his mind yet again, saying that there would be no review of the Kono Statement.
In June last year, the Kono Statement review panel said the facts used to draw up the statement were correct and there were no plans to change it. But it also said the statement was a by-product of diplomatic negotiations, drafted under pressure from Korea. It is yet another thinly veiled attempt to deny the existence of Japanese military sex slaves, 53 of whom survive in South Korea.
The denial of wartime military sexual slavery is part of Mr Abe's broader attempt to revise history. In April 2013, he told the Diet that he does not uphold the Murayama Statement of 1995, arguing that there could be different definitions of the term "aggression". The landmark statement admitted that Japan "caused tremendous damage and suffering… through its colonial rule and aggression". Under heavy criticism, he claimed the administration upholds the Murayama statement in general.
Looking at just some of Japan's vacillations on the issue of apology over military sex slavery and wartime aggression, is it any wonder South Koreans find Japan's apologies less than credible?
For a lesson on apology, Japan could look to Germany. Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt before the Ghetto uprising memorial in 1970. And this was neither the first nor the last expression of apology and acceptance of responsibility by Germany for its role in World War II. Soon after the war's end, Germany set about to reconcile with its neighbours, apologise to the Holocaust victims and make restitutions, and vigorously hunt down war criminals, all of which continue to this day.
During a lecture in Tokyo last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded Japan to look squarely at history. "Without big gestures by our neighbours", she said, reconciliation would not have been possible. At a news conference, she said settling wartime history is "a prerequisite for reconciliation". In a meeting with the head of Japan's main opposition party, she urged Japan to resolve the military sex slave issue properly. Her comments, coming ahead of Mr Abe's statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II to be issued in August, ought to remind Japan of what needs to be done before there can be any talk of the future. The Abe administration's attempts to whitewash history will undermine Japan's standing in the international community. At a time when the military sex slavery issue is seen as a human rights issue and the global trend is to recognise and condemn past human rights abuses, trying to deny the violations of the rights of former military sex slaves invites international condemnation.
Mr Abe's attempts to revise Japan's wartime history are clearly not in Japan's national interests. The choice is entirely his - whether to settle the past and move on or rob Japan of the possibility of the future by denying history. In his August speech, he has a chance to issue a definitive, unequivocal apology that could start the long overdue process of reconciliation in the region. A positive note was sounded last week when the deputy chief of the panel advising Mr Abe on his statement told a symposium, "I want Mr Abe to say, 'Japan committed aggression (against China).'" The world awaits Mr Abe's choice.
THE KOREA HERALD/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK