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If the British transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is looking for a “model” for his bicycle registration plates proposal he could turn to one of the world’s most illiberal countries: North Korea.

Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

After decades of being frowned upon as a primitive means of transport for citizens of a modern, socialist paradise, cycling gained official acceptance in the secretive state in 1992 – although it is officially banned for women.

Bicycles are now an expensive but increasingly popular mode of transport for many in the country, where private car ownership, although on the rise, is still rare.

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The change of heart was partly attributed to the famine and economic crisis of the 1990s, which made other modes of transport too expensive, while power cuts made rail services unreliable, the US-based website NK News said in a 2017 article.

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These days, Pyongyang is considered bike-friendly, largely because there are so few cars on the capital’s wide streets. Bicycle lanes and parking areas are to be found all over the city, and bikes are indispensable in rural areas with next to no other means of getting around.

That said, the authorities continue to have a love-hate relationship with the bicycle. Would-be owners are required to pass a road safety test at their local police station, and every bicycle requires a licence plate – a metal tag showing where it was registered, along with a registration number, that is displayed at the front.

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As in other countries, bicycles are considered a status symbol in North Korea.

Japanese bikes are reportedly the most sought after, followed by locally made models that are said to be manufactured by prison labourers. Chinese bikes are the least coveted, according to Beijing-based Koyro Tours, which has organised cycling breaks for foreign visitors to Pyongyang and other parts of North Korea.

In 2015 it was reported that North Korea had installed bicycle lanes on major roads in Pyongyang, apparently to address accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians. It was also a reflection of in increase in the number of people who could afford a bicycle, although they are still beyond the reach of many of the country’s 26 million people.

While licence plates are non-negotiable, a ban on women riding bicycles has been harder to enforce. Women were reportedly forbidden from cycling in 1995 by the then leader, Kim Jong-il, partly because he believed the sight of a woman striking a “seductive” pose on two wheels would corrupt public morals.

Others say the reason is more prosaic: Kim ordered the ban, with fines and even confiscation for offenders, after the daughter of a high-ranking official died after she was hit by a car while riding her bike in Pyongyang.

His son and successor, Kim Jong-un, who has been pictured on horses and amusement park rides, but never on a bicycle, lifted the ban in 2012, only to reimpose it a year later.

Reports from Pyongyang suggest that while the ban is still in place, harsh economic reality means it is rarely enforced. Many women would be unable to buy and sell goods at markets or take their children to and from school without a bicycle.

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