The joint statement at the end of the highest-level meeting between China, Japan and South Korea in three years was forward looking. It showed the sides had agreed at their landmark weekend talks in Seoul to resume dialogue on a range of issues of concern, among them air pollution, cybersecurity and counterterrorism. But the undercurrent was focused firmly on the past. The trilateral and bilateral talks offered a forum for the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers to press demands to their Japanese counterpart for his country to face up to the atrocities committed by invading forces more than 70 years ago. That was to be expected: Frosty relations in northeast Asia will not move forward while historical wounds remain open due to insufficient atonement and the lack of an adequate apology. With the diplomats not having met for so long, their discussions were unsurprisingly wide-ranging and included North Korean nuclear proliferation, the Middle East and the environment. But Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korea's Yun Byung-se were most interested in broaching with Japan's Fumio Kishida historical matters that have for generations dogged ties. Their "commitment to trilateral cooperation" in the statement was to be expected; more importantly, though, was the inclusion of an agreement to improve ties "in the spirit of facing history squarely and advancing towards the future". Moving to the next stage of dialogue and eventually, a leaders' summit, is essential for regional peace and greater prosperity. President Xi Jinping's brief November meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to break the ice. A thaw will come only when Japan comes to terms with the invasion of Asia that ended in defeat 70 years ago this August. Accepting and apologising for the deaths of tens of millions, the rape and enslavement of women, and looting and destruction of property is the only viable starting point. Abe has that opportunity with a message being drafted to mark the occasion. The chance will be lost and circumstances could worsen should he not go as far as his predecessor Tomiichi Murayama, who in 1995 apologised for the suffering caused to neighbours. But that is only a part of the process; politicians have to stop celebrating war criminals, denying the existence of "comfort women" and set aside nationalist rhetoric in favour of genuine remorse.