Forward Jong Il-Gwan scored with a delicious free kick as North Korea salvaged a measure of pride at the East Asian championship by drawing 1-1 with China.

The North Koreans were beaten 1-0 by Japan and South Korea in their opening two matches in Tokyo -- both played against the backdrop of souring political relations following Pyongyang's recent missile launches.

They looked to be heading for another defeat against Marcello Lippi's China after Wei Shihao swept home a Zhang Wenzhao cross after 28 minutes.

But Jong equalised 10 minutes from time when he curled home a free kick from the edge of the box that Lionel Messi would have been proud of, sparking wild celebrations on the North Korea bench and from several hundred pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans in the crowd.

Despite United Nations sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme, their footballers were allowed to compete in the tournament after the Japanese government waived travel restrictions.

Hosts Japan and fierce rivals South Korea were facing off in the late game with the title on the line.

The Blue Samurai, who like the Koreans have qualified for next year's World Cup in Russia, only need to avoid defeat to lift the trophy after taking six points from their first two games.

The biennial East Asian tournament was first held in 2003 when South Korea won the first of their three titles, a year after reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup as co-hosts with Japan.