(ATTN: UPDATES Moon's remarks Cheonan sinking, floral basket ceremony in last 6 paras; ADDS photo)
SEOUL, March 27 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in pledged his unwavering will to overcome the new coronavirus on Friday while honoring patriotic servicemen who sacrificed their lives to defend the Yellow Sea during maritime battles against North Korea.
Attending a ceremony to mark the fifth Yellow Sea Defense Day, Moon said that South Korea needs patriotism, as demonstrated by fallen heroes, more than ever in its fight against the COVID-19 crisis.
"The sacrifice and devotion by heroes of the Yellow Sea defense is the symbol of patriotism," Moon said in a televised speech at the Daejeon National Cemetery in the central city.
"It is time that we need patriotism more than ever. In memory of indomitable heroes, I affirm the will to overcome the COVID-19 crisis," he said.
It was the first time that the president attended the ceremony to mark Yellow Sea Defense Day since he took office in May 2017.
Moon highlighted the need for patriotism to overcome the national coronavirus crisis while stressing the government's will to build peace through a strong defense posture.
"Challenging the COVID-19 crisis, we affirm that patriotism is being displayed in the form of solidarity and cooperation," Moon said.
"With patriotism, we will write a new history of peace and prosperity in the midst of international cooperation."
South Korea is pumping up efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. The country has reported 9,332 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 139 deaths, as of Friday morning.
The government designated the fourth Friday in March as Yellow Sea Defense Day to remember those who were killed in waters off the west coast during three battles against North Korea's provocations in 2002 and 2010.
This year also marked the 10th anniversary of two of the three incidents -- North Korea's deadly sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26, 2010 and the communist nation's artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a front-line island in the Yellow Sea, on Nov. 23, 2010.
Waters near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, have been the scene of bloody skirmishes.
Moon attended the ceremony in consideration of the symbolic anniversary of the warship sinking, according to his office Cheong Wa Dae. The North's torpedo attack left 46 South Korean sailors dead.
The president said the government will make efforts to establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula with a beefed-up defense posture.
"The strongest security is to build peace. Promoting peace is the way that we could repay the sacrifice of the heroes," he said.
Ahead of the speech, Moon offered incense in front of a giant memorial tower in commemoration of the victims and other patriotic martyrs.
The mother of a Cheonan sinking victim approached the president and asked him about the responsibility for the incident.
"Please tell me whether it's an act of North Korea, who's responsible for that," she asked Moon.
The president replied, "There's no change even a little in the government's official position."
After months of investigation, joined by foreign experts, the South Korean government concluded that it had been attacked by a North Korean submarine.
She was apparently querying if the liberal Moon administration accepts the outcome of the probe conducted under the conservative Lee Myung-bak government at that time.
Moon later visited the graves of all of 55 victims of the three incidents including that of Han Joo-ho, warrant officer who died during a rescue operation for the crew of the Cheonan corvette. Moon laid a basket of flowers in front of each grave and touched each gravestone.