On 22 June, 1965, South Korea and Japan signed their Treaty on Basic Relations, the fundament for the current relationship.

With this week's 50th anniversary and next month's 70th anniversary of Imperial Japan's defeat in World War II, all eyes are on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There is widespread hope – but little expectation, it must be admitted – that on these major occasions Abe will offer some concessions to Korea and the region on historical questions, most importantly:

  1. Japan's general culpability for its expansionism, culminating in the war.
  2. Its harsh treatment of conquered peoples, especially the Chinese.
  3. Historical representations which portray the war as something forced on Japan or done to liberate Asia from Western colonialism, and in which Japan was a victim and where brutalities such as the 'comfort women' system or Unit 731 go undiscussed.

Apologies and liability

The debate over responding to Korea is particularly contentious. Relations between the two are near an all-time low, and Abe has consistently dodged culpability or cast doubt on established facts. The normalisation debate fifty years ago was highly antagonistic in Korea. There were mass protests, which the dictator at the time, Park Chung Hee, was able to override through sheer force. But as Korea has democratised, public opinion has become harder to constrain. Nationalist opinion has focused on Japan's contrition, or lack thereof. The central Korean demand in the relationship is a sincere apology. Tokyo feels it has done this many times. Hence the stalemate.

A further, often unrecognised, issue is financial liability. The most contentious part of the 1965 settlement is the agreement to forgo all Korean financial claims against Japan related to the war in exchange for extensive financial and technological assistance. Japan did indeed provide this – a point my Japanese interlocutors constantly remind me of.

But at the time, the 'comfort women' issue – the coerced impressment of Korean women into military brothels – was not widely recognised in Korea and conveniently forgotten in Japan. As the issue exploded in the 1990s, demands for compensation were inevitable. Japan has balked at formal compensation, claiming that the 1965 treaty settled all claims. But Korea at that time was an impoverished autocracy. It is hard to know if, in 1965, a more democratic Korea with its contemporary knowledge of the comfort women issue would have signed this treaty, but probably not. That casts doubt on the moral propriety of Japan's legalistic adherence to the claims-rejection clause.

Aware of this and the ensuing reputational damage, the Japanese Government attempted to settle the issue with the Asian Women's Fund (AWF), a parastatal NGO in the 1990s-2000s that sought to compensate the victims without an acknowledgment of direct state culpability. The South Korean Government considered this insufficient and encouraged former South Korean comfort women to reject the money and apology.

Seoul attributed the AWF to persistent Japanese evasion about wartime atrocities, but not widely recognised in Korea is the fear in Tokyo that formally abandoning the 1965 denial of further claims could open the door to a landslide of Korean claims against Japan. My own sense from Japanese colleagues and associates is that Tokyo would like to formally recognise the comfort women and end the issue, but it fears huge liability exposure and opportunism if it steps back from the treaty. Greece, in its tussle with the eurozone troika, has recently 'discovered' that Nazi-era reparations due to it pretty closely approximate Athens' current debt.

Seoul would need to credibly commit that such blatant manipulation would not occur in this case, but that is nearly impossible. Korean citizens and groups could bring all sorts of post-treaty claims, and the Blue House would be unable to stop unwanted court decisions without grossly violating judicial independence. Simultaneously, Korean courts would be under huge public pressure to find in favour of the claimants, fueling precisely the claim wave Tokyo fears. Like the apology debate, the issue is stalemated.

What Abe could say to help...but won't

Usually these sorts of articles end with arguments that both Japan and Korea need to compromise in order to get along and deal with the really serious issues of their neighborhood – North Korea, China, etc. And so they should. In my previous writings on this topic, I have often suggested that Koreans might take steps to ease the tension, such as dropping the needlessly provocative Sea of Japan re-naming campaign that only stiffens Japan's spine rather than encouraging reconciliation.

But it must be said that Abe has veered so widely from accepted fact on Japanese 20th century imperialism that he must now make the first move, not just to the Koreans but to much of the Asia Pacific, including the Americans. Here are three steps, blindingly obvious to anyone outside Japanese reactionary historiography, that are needed to bring Japan not just into accord with the region but also with accepted scholarship in the rest of the world.

  1. Japan's culpability in war-time atrocities is now accepted fact outside of head-in-the-sand Japanese conservative circles. It would help immensely if Abe & co would simply admit what everyone else knows already anyway. As a critic of my Interpreter writing on 'Korea fatigue' rightly put it, we all have 'Japan fatigue' too, in that we have been dancing around this obvious issue for decades. Enough.
  2. Japan's historical representation – such as at Yushukan, in the lack of any museums or architecture on behalf of the victims of its 20th century imperialism, through the 'victim narrative', and so on – must change. It is myopic at best, a whitewash at worst. Historians have been saying this for years.
  3. Visits to Yasukuni do nothing but anger most of the planet; even the emperor refuses to go. Why Japanese prime ministers continue to go confounds everyone.

Needless to say, such moves are unlikely, but these two anniversaries are huge opportunities to reset the region's dynamics in Japan's favour by finally ending a discussion that it will simply never win. Is permanent denialism really a strategy? South Korean President Park Guen-Hye hinted to the Washington Post that deal on the comfort women is imminent; is Abe finally coming around?