Hong Kong are now the overwhelming favourites to win the East Asian Championship preliminary stage in the SAR next month after main rivals North Korea opted to skip the event. The winners of the five-team qualifier will join powerhouses Japan, South Korea and China in the finals of the inaugural championship in Japan in May. The SAR's chances of making it to Japan were given a shot in the arm after North Korea - who beat Hong Kong 2-1 at September's Pusan Asian Games - refused to send a team. The SAR will face minnows Taiwan, Macau, Mongolia and Guam in the round-robin tournament, pencilled in for February 22 to March 2 at Hong Kong Stadium. 'We have a 70 per cent chance of qualifying,' said Hong Kong FA secretary general Martin Lam Chun-ying. Hong Kong are ranked 150th in the world, the highest among the five teams. East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) secretary general Takeo Okada said North Korea fell short of explaining their decision, but he believed it was a political one. 'They didn't state clearly in their written reply,' Okada said. 'The EAFF will bear all the costs including air tickets and accommodations for the teams, so it shouldn't be about money. 'I believe it's because of the unstable political situation in their country. They did compete in the Asian Games but that was different. The Asian Games were a good platform for North Korea to show themselves to the world.' Hong Kong team technical consultant Kwok Ka-ming reckoned Taiwan to be the only team capable of pulling off an upset in the SAR's bid to claim the winning spot and US$50,000 winners' prizemoney. 'The other nations don't have their own professional leagues. But we can't underestimate Taiwan, they could be a strong team. Macau are of the same level as Taiwan, but we know them well,' Kwok said. Guam spokesman Richard Lai admitted there was a huge gulf between his team and Hong Kong, saying: 'Most of our players are college students but we've lost many players since most students go to study in the United States after their graduation.' Guam are ranked 200th in FIFA's 203-strong rankings. Hong Kong, who will kick off their East Asian Championship campaign on February 22 when they play Taiwan, will likely field the national players who were included in last week's Guangdong-Hong Kong Interport tournament. The grand finale, to be staged in Japan from May 28 to June 3, has a total purse of US$900,000, with US$400,000 going to the winners of the tournament. The Hong Kong FA also doesn't have to dig into its pockets to pay for hosting the qualifier because the EAFF will cover the event costs with money from TV rights and sponsorships.