A 42-year-old Korean immigrant, described as friendly and hard working, was fatally wounded yesterday when she exchanged shots with men who tried to rob her inner-city grocery store, D.C. police said.

Young Ja Cha, who came to this country about 10 years ago, was shot about 2:30 p.m. in the store she and her husband ran at Sherman Avenue and Columbia Road NW, D.C. police said.

According to one witness, the victim, who pursued the robbers for a few steps from the store at 3001 Sherman Ave., collapsed, bleeding, into a large cardboard carton on the sidewalk.

The woman and her husband, who was not immediately identified by name, began operating the store, known as the Sherman Market, about four years ago. According to Flora Briscoe, who lives nearby, they were both "so nice."

Just before the shooting, according to police, two or three men in their late teens or early 20s entered the store, apparently armed with one or more handguns, and tried to hold up Cha and her husband.

Residents and merchants in the row-house neighborhood around the corner store said the market had been held up two or three times before.

This time, according to Capt. Larry Soulsby, head of the police homicide unit, "There was an exchange of gunfire, apparently from the people inside."

Cha exchanged shots with the robbers, a homicide detective said last night, but further details about the incident were not immediately available.

The robbers, who apparently got no money, according to police, fled from the store, and were seen running west on Columbia Road.

Flora Briscoe said she saw one of the robbers flee, then looked back at the store and saw that Cha had collapsed in the carton.

"She was lying down inside of that," Briscoe told a reporter. "She was bleeding."

Briscoe said fire department ambulance attendants arrived and carried Cha back into the store. They then took her to the MedStar unit of the Washington Hospital Center, where she died at 3:36 p.m. of a gunshot wound in the chest.

Cha and her husband lived in suburban Maryland and had two children, a son in college and a daughter who is in her teens, according to the owner of a nearby market.

A young man believed to be the son arrived at the store yesterday evening, and was escorted by police to the hospital.

The Chas, who kept their store open seven days a week, worked "long hours, like seven in the morning to 10 at night," said Morty Zeserman, owner of a nearby liquor store.

The victim "was a wonderful woman, a wonderful person," said an 80-year-old woman who lives nearby.

"I went in for a beer every day, the woman said. "She and her husband both called me 'mom.'

"I am so sorry . . . . "