TOKYO — A number of global capitals have tried a car rationing system over the years to try to reduce congestion. Beijing, Paris, New Delhi, Mexico City: All have at some stage introduced rules to keep cars with odd- or even-numbered license plates off the road on set days.
Now another city can be added to that list: Pyongyang.
The North Korean capital is hardly known for its gridlock. After all, it's only in the past couple of years that the city has gotten its first traffic light — its famous female traffic police are still the norm — and there are still no privately owned cars in North Korea.
But the number of cars on the roads has increased markedly in recent years, the result of a sharp increase in the number of taxis and government vehicles, as well as a steady uptick in tourist numbers.
Kim Jong Un's regime has instituted a system this year to keep cars off the road. From Jan. 1, cars with even- or odd-numbered license plates have been allowed on the roads only on alternate days, according to people who either live in Pyongyang or have visited this year. There are exceptions to the rule: government and other "high-ranking" cars, military vehicles, foreigners' cars and minibuses with more than 24 seats.
Locals report being told that the system is modeled on the restrictions in various Chinese cities and, like those, is intended to reduce congestion and emissions.
But many speculate that the real reason is linked to a shortage of gasoline for vehicles.
Although residents and visitors alike say they've seen no signs yet of gas shortages — unlike electricity, which is clearly in short supply, with frequent and lengthy power cuts — they wonder if it is looming. (All the people contacted for this post spoke on the condition of anonymity, concerned about jeopardizing their relations with North Korea.)
Some say the government appears to anticipating a shortage and want to ration gasoline as their foreign exchange reserves are depleted — in no small part because of the economic slowdown in China.
Others suggest that move may be preparation for China, angry about the recent nuclear and missile tests, turning off the oil tap to North Korea.
As the international community considers how to punish Kim's regime for its recent provocations, and becomes increasingly frustrated with the priority that Beijing places on stability, such a move would show that China does have an influence on North Korea and will use it — even if not to the degree that Washington wants.